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 Gregg Conley, Dean of Students at KIPP Philadelphia. Gregg is an educator of over 18 years and currently the Senior Dean of Students at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, part of the KIPP Philadelphia Public Schools Network.
Gregg holds a B.A. in Early Childhood Education from Clark Atlanta University and a M.S. in Curriculum and Education from Central Michigan University. His time in urban education as well as coming from a family of educators has helped fuel his passion for education where he devotes his time, efforts, and energy to building and supporting the students that he meets.
Malcolm (MD): Hi Gregg, thanks so much for being willing to participate in this interview!
Gregg (GC): No problem, glad to help.
MD: In the pre-survey you said Culture/ Certification/ Energy are some of the reasons that young people of color aren’t becoming educators, can you elaborate on that?
GC: One thing I saw early on was a lack of Black males in early childhood education and that’s why I went into early childhood. If we catch issues with our young people early, we’ll potentially have less issues later. Education being female dominated, especially in the younger grades, you don’t see a lot of males or Black males, that’s the culture part to me. It’s not something that’s engrained in Black males to go into younger grades, they typically go into secondary grade levels.
MD: You also mentioned certification as an issue or barrier, can you tell me more about that?
GC: Certification is an issue, to get into my teacher program you had to pass Praxis I, and before student teaching you had to pass Praxis II, and there were people who couldn’t pass the test. That meant they couldn’t get certified so they had to fall back on something else. I see it now, year after year people get provisional certifications trying to make it through but still can’t meet the requirements to obtain certification. So you see them getting moved around between grades and subject areas.
MD: Absolutely, you definitely see a lot of people getting moved around for certification purposes. In the talent world you see that happen quite a bit. Lastly you mentioned energy, what does that mean to you?
GC: You have to have a certain energy to deal with young people, and people tell me all the time they couldn’t do it. When dealing with certain issues, I realize that the behaviors aren’t towards me, it’s towards trauma, and a lot of people don’t feel that they have the energy to put into it. I think about what it’s like to have children and work in education and pour into hundreds of children every day and then have to go home and do the same thing. Work life balance is a real thing, and I appreciate that my organization has made strides towards being better about that.
MD: So let’s talk about some of the reasons why educators of color aren’t staying in the work. You said relationships are a major issue, can you please tell me more?
GC: What I’ve seen the most is that people that build relationships with students and families continue to do it because they can see the forest through the trees. They’re able to recognize the importance of helping one student versus people who don’t build relationships and ultimately are there to just get a check. In regards to adult relationships, to be honest, adults sometimes focus more on friendships than actual work.
MD: Yeah, it’s tough because teaching is not the place to just get a check. You have to be committed to the work, to the students, and families. What about the relationships between the adults in the building?
GC: I’ve noticed that people start complaining about negative things and you have 2 or 3 people that pile on top of it. As opposed to the people that see it is an opportunity to turn it around and are solutions oriented. You have these friendships where people get too comfortable and don’t push each other in ways they need to be pushed.
MD: That makes a lot of sense, for sure. As a person that had several teachers of color through your K-12 journey can you tell me how that affected your sense of culture and pride as a person of color?
GC: For me, my journey isn’t the norm. I came from a two parent household and I’m the youngest of five children. Every school I went to a teacher had one of my siblings and there’s a sense of community and they all had a relationship with my mom as well. Talking to other people of color, they say they didn’t have a teacher of color until high school but my first teacher of color was Kindergarten and I had a Black male gym teacher. So from elementary school I was around Black male educators.
MD: That’s powerful Gregg. Can you talk to me a bit about how that experience dictates how you work with your students?
GC: I had this exposure to people I knew loved and cared about me from an early age, and that transitioned to me with the young people I deal with and see everyday. They know that I’m going to push them in ways they need to be pushed. I believe we need to be family oriented, and as hard as it may be to do the village mindset in this day and age it’s important to have that culture and approach with young people.
MD: So you mentioned that you were mostly joking with your mom as a youth in regards to becoming an educator, but did having so many educators of color make you want to become an educator?
GC: Having Black teachers made me feel home and I can be my genuine authentic self. Subconsciously it helped plant, water, and nourish the seeds. My freshman year summer I worked at a camp and I enjoyed being around the young people, and I realized it’s something I might be able to do. It’s important to know that I wasn’t a number.
MD: Gregg, again thank you so much for your time and responses! I hope you have a great summer and keep doing the amazing work that you do for our young people.
You can connect with Gregg Conley through his Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.