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 Deion Jordan, Director of Teaching and Learning at KnowledgeWorks. Deion A. Jordan works with learning communities across the country to coach them in redesigning learning structures toward personalized, competency-based learning.
He brings experience in rethinking and redesigning educational access and equity by prioritizing mastery-based assessments and community-connected projects that are diverse by design and rooted in place. Through his experiences as a Black student and educator, Deion brings an anti-oppressive lens critical to transforming schools into autonomous learning communities where students are supported to fulfill their full potential.
Malcolm Davis (MD): Hi Deion, thank you so much for making time to speak with me today! Your experiences in education are incredible and I felt as if you’d be a great person to connect with for this series.
Deion Jordan (DJ): No problem!
MD: First let’s talk about some of the reasons why young people of color aren’t becoming educators. You said it’s a number of factors, can you elaborate on that?
DJ: When I think about myself and people that grew up in similar neighborhoods as me and life circumstances (grew up in poverty, first to go to college), they want to do things that have a positive benefit to society at large and for BIPOC folks. There’s the struggle of wanting to be extremely successful, and the classic definition of success is getting a Juris Doctorate, Doctor of Medicine, or PhD, and not necessarily teaching. Everyone wants to be the first lawyer or doctor but not necessarily the first teacher.
MD: That makes a lot of sense.
DJ: I had a mentor that was in education, he was a Penn grad and Morehouse grad and he exposed me to the power of education through his non-profit. I saw there were Black men in this space, I didn’t have any Black male teachers K-12. I taught summer programming at Yale and did curricular development and had full control over my classroom as an undergrad. That changed my trajectory, and I could see success in the education industry and I went that route. Even going that route, you’re making low amounts of money and there are people that are graduating with an enormous amount of debt. I was a Gates Millenium Scholar so I wasn’t worried about the money.
MD: So for you, the debt and low salary are a big piece of this?
DJ: Absolutely. How do you put educators of color in a position where they aren’t saddled with debt and want to enter the work where there may not be a high salary? Also, the education trajectory, how do we sustain education? I did Teach for America and people teach for two years and springboard off to something else. How do you remain on the academic side of things and not get streamlined into a Dean of Students? What’s upward mobility? I don’t want to teach forever, I want to meet people that help me grow and develop my innate strengths and abilities and remain in the industry. All of these questions/concerns play into whether young people of color actually want to be in this work.
MD: As far as what is preventing educators of color from staying in education, you said there were also a number of things preventing it, can you tell me more?
DJ: It’s not a singular theme. I worked at a school as an instructional leader and we hired all the teachers, and we struggled finding teachers of color, specifically Black men, and we know the statistics are daunting. On one hand we have a teacher working in the district and they’re the creme de la creme, and their salary is high, can we match it?
MD: What were some of the other issues or themes that you had to take into consideration?
DJ: Then there’s the question of culture, is this a place that they will be happy? We had high quality teachers go through our interview process and decide they don’t want to leave their current school/home. Certification too, we paid for certification tests and helped people through the process. At TFA there were 5 or 6 educators of color that struggled with the Praxis, there are a lot of organizations that don’t support educators the way they should be, like 1:1 support. Who is paying for that? If you don’t have the resources as an educator that may be it for you.
MD: Of all of those concerns, what do you feel personally may be the biggest hindrance?
DJ: If I were to answer that personally, it’s salary/upward mobility. I work for an education public charity, and the money and mobility is very different here, you can see the stair steps upward. I want to have a family and get married and send my kids to college. I want impact, and I want to go beyond a school. I now work with the entire state of Ohio. Impact is big for me.
MD: In regards to your own personal K-12 journey as a student, you didn’t have many educators of color. How did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a person of color growing up?
DJ: I think prior to my mentor, I was a lost kid. I didn’t take school seriously, and I’m not even sure I was thinking of culture in the way we’re talking about it right now, the things that make up who I am. I didn’t have educators of color, they were all white women and then at Mastery there was some shift and change. There was a Black male teacher, but he never taught me.
DJ: When I met my mentor, he was running a summer program in Germantown (a neighborhood in Philadelphia), and that was my first foray into personalized learning and what it means for my needs to be met as a learner. The moment I came in, there’s a diagnostic and books at whatever level I’m on. From there I realized I’m not doing things for the sake of doing it, but I have autonomy over the metacognitive process, which is super helpful for learners. We’ve been connected since then and I’m able to see his work continue to this day. I suppose without him I’d be a lawyer at this moment, I wouldn’t have this interest in education.
MD: That’s major! That individualized education component is a big piece to the puzzle as well, not treating young people as numbers but instead as people.
DJ: Exactly. Yes I also have a father, but having someone that served as a father figure with a lot of degrees from an ivy league institution and exposing me to Ethiopian food for example was big for me. Those things shifted my mindset and changed my perspective.
MD: Deion, thank you so much for participating in this interview! Your perspective is much needed and your responses provide a lot of insight on some of the systemic changes that we need to make in order for education to be a space where people of color feel wanted, heard, and respected.
You can connect with Deion Jordan through his Twitter, or LinkedIn, and also make sure to check out the podcast “Getting Smart”! You can also connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.