As a part of my series on educator diversity, I’m having conversations with educators of color that have expressed an interest in speaking with me about their experiences. The goal of these conversations is to provide voices to the plight of educators of color, and to show how we can not only get more young people of color into classrooms and into education in general, but that investments also need to be made on the back end to ensure we keep really good educators in the work.
For this interview, I have the opportunity to speak with Simone Sills, who is a passionate Science and Health Educator, and also works with first and second year teachers in New York City. She’s particularly interested in health disparities among ethnic populations, specifically Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander youth. Her goal is to expand the knowledge of basic sciences including Chemistry, Biology, Environmental issues and as well as health conditions that exist among those underrepresented populations.
Malcolm Davis (MD): Hi Simone, thanks so much for taking some time to talk with me today! I’m excited to get into our conversation to learn more about your perspective on how we can improve teaching to make it more appealing to people of color.
Simone Sills (SS): Thanks for the invite Mal.
MD: Let’s talk about some of the reasons why young people of color aren’t becoming educators. You said school culture, can you elaborate on that?
SS: I work with first and second year teachers and a lot of times school culture can be very toxic and not inviting and conducive to teacher development. One of my former coworkers said that you can’t teach in isolation, and a lot of the teachers I work with feel alone and don’t have the time or chance to collaborate with other teachers or get feedback from Administration to hone their craft and work through the day to day teacher things (time management, lesson planning, etc). Unfortunately a lot of administrators may not have developed themselves so they don’t know how to build a collaborative space to have a healthy school culture.
MD: School culture is such a big piece of the puzzle, I always say you either build your culture intentionally or it builds itself but either way a culture is manifesting in your building. Like you said, there are quite a few administrators who don’t really know how to build culture, and unfortunately came from negative school cultures that they rebuild in their own building.
MD: So we talked about why more young people of color aren’t becoming educators, but what about why current educators of color are leaving the work? You said certification, can you tell me more?
SS: I worked with teachers this year that had to take the NY State certification and it became very frustrating. They question what does the test have to do with their ability to teach, it’s content based but we know it takes more than just the content to be a great teacher. In addition to the actual test, Special Education teachers take even more tests and also the cost of it all. It’s almost “scammish” because if you don’t pass you have to retake it and the system seems built to spend more money as teachers. It’s not indicative of the kind of teacher you’re going to be, the test is only a test of your understanding of the content at the time when you take the test.
MD: I wholeheartedly agree. Add to that the number of school leaders that I’ve talked to that said there’s no correlation between being a good teacher and being certified. Plus the fact that if you want to switch states to teach elsewhere, you usually have to retake certification tests in the new state and pay more money.
SS: It really is unfortunate for educators that are just pouring money into these tests.
MD: You had quite a few educators of color as a student, how did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a person of color?
SS: I didn’t have any educators of color through elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn. In middle school I had two Black teachers, one math and one home economics. It was refreshing to see a young Black math teacher, she was fly and she made it seem that I could do it as well. In high school I had maybe two teachers of color, my criminal law teacher was one of the best teachers I had. He really started to expose the ills of the criminal justice system.
MD: That would be dope to have a criminal justice class, that’s something that really needs to be implemented in our urban schools so our students know their rights.
SS: I went to school around the time of the Central Park 5. It was important to have those mentors that you could relate to and that would talk to you in a way that was real and that you could relate to as a young Black teenager from Brooklyn. I remember him to this day, he was dyslexic and we would notice he’d misspell things and he was open and honest about having dyslexia and him being forthcoming about his struggles was important. I then went to an HBCU and we had Black professors all the time.
MD: That transparency and cultural awareness is so important when working with young people of color. It’s also clear that having those experiences helped to foster an understanding of why it’s important to become an educator and influence the future young people. Simone, again thank you for time and thoughtful responses. Your students are very fortunate to have an advocate like you on their side.
You can connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and you can learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.