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 Shana Pyatt-Buckner, Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Uncommon Schools. Shana is a former Middle and High School Science Department Chair, High School Testing Coordinator, Dean of Curriculum and Instruction, and High School Principal. She has spent the majority of that time supporting social justice work at Uncommon Schools.
Malcolm Davis (MD): What’s up Shana, thanks so much for being a part of this conversation!
Shana Pyatt (SP): Thanks for inviting me to join you.
MD: To start things off let’s talk about some of the reasons why young people of color aren’t becoming educators. You said it’s salary, can you elaborate on that?
SP: I don’t think there’s one reason why they aren’t going into education, I can say from what I’ve heard anecdotally, one of the reasons is based on economic inequality due to systemic racism. We’ve been able to access financial security in a way we want, so when the younger generation is going to college for a degree it’s not initially to be a teacher. Those going into education, I believe they’re going in because there’s been some inherited experience where there have been educators in their family or they were impacted by a teacher.
MD: Salary is certainly a recurring theme in these conversations I’ve had thus far. Though there continues to be a concerted effort to try and rectify the salary problems in teaching, we still have a long way to go.
SP: Many of the “STEM” folks already have a job and career plan, and we’re asking them to put their financial outlook on hold to teach and to serve their community. Many recent graduates want to come in and develop content and write their own lesson plans but aren’t giving that agency or flexibility. We’re also seeing a lot of tension between the older generation of leaders and this new group of teachers that see “work” in a very different way. That’s where a lot of the professionalism issues are stemming from.
MD: That’s a really great point about so many of our most talented young people already having a career path in mind before we attempt to “convert” them to teaching. It’s why The Center for Black Educator Development has made such a big push to get young people interested in teaching as early as elementary school. As far as what is preventing educators of color from staying in education, you said work/life balance, can you tell me more?
SP: There’s a different definition of work/life balance for everyone. My whole life was teaching, and I don’t know if there was any sort of balance. I gained so much joy being with my students and their families. In the first ten years of founding a school, I was known for spending the night at school, getting up, going home, shower and come back. When I became a school leader and had my children I realized I had to be home by 4:30 PM and being a principal didn’t allow that. Self preservation is a real thing, and you have to identify as an individual what you can and can’t do. Then identify what that means for the role that you have.
MD: Self-preservation is a REAL thing. Especially when it comes to weighing being with your family more versus the demands of your job/role.
SP: There needs to be understanding from the employer and employee that there are certain things that are necessary for you to be successful at your job. There’s give and take and then there’s the things that are mandatory. You have to be aligned on the things that are mandatory for the relationship to work.
MD: I love that perspective honestly, and it’s a push for school leaders and districts to be clear about the “non-negotiables” of the job. It’s also a chance to take a long look at what we think are mandatory that are in fact optional, which potentially frees up more time for other things. As we close out, what’s a piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring educator of color in order to help them make a lasting impact in this work?
SP: Don’t go into the field unless you truly love young people. There’s going to be the ones that keep you there and keep you in teaching the longest. If you have a real understanding of young people, this is a good position for you. Understand a lot of their reactions to things in the classroom are not personal. Listen to the students and you really have to love being with them and allow yourself the space to grow with them.
MD: For sure, that’s what got me through some of the toughest times I had as an educator, the relationships I had with my students and their families meant everything to me. As we know, the first few years of teaching can also be the hardest, anything specifically for the folks that are in their first year or two?
SP: Your first three years of teaching you’re still learning, so don’t assume your textbook knowledge is everything because it isn’t. Teaching is all about developing relationships with students and their families. If you can do that, I think everything else will begin to fall into place.
MD: Absolutely, the relationship building piece is an integral component to becoming a successful educator. As the saying goes “we can teach you how to teach, but we can’t teach you to love the students” which I’ve found to be 100% true. Understanding the importance of relationship building and communication will take you a long way in the early years. Again Shana, thank you for your time, and I can’t wait to catch up again in the future.
SP: Thanks again Mal!
You can connect with Shana Pyatt through her LinkedIn. You can connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here. #WeNeedMoreBlackTeachers