I knew I wanted to help people at a young age. In my early teens, I began by helping out and volunteering with CAPA’s Centers for Musically Talented on Saturdays. During this time, I would give private lessons to students much younger than me, and I quickly realized that these moments were priceless. Looking back, I did not know this would be the start of the journey for me to go into teaching. During my lessons, I realized that this was a space where both the teacher and student can learn and grow together. Growing up, I was around music a lot, and I was fortunate to go to a performing arts middle school and high school in Pittsburgh called CAPA High School. CAPA stands for “Creative And Performing Arts.” It was these schools that paved the pathway for me to be able to go to gigs, play in churches as well as experience playing in some jazz night clubs and venues at a young age.
When I was in 11th grade, I remember discussing with my trombone teacher, Mr. Carl Jackson, my plans for the future. At the time, I had wanted to pursue trombone performance and play piano as well. My teachers encouraged me to look into music education. This way, I could give private lessons, teach and perform on the side.
As I prepared to leave High School, I was fortunate enough to receive the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship and a few other scholarships. Without these scholarships, I would have not been able to attend college. I went to Edinboro University for music education, and I fell in love with my classmates. There were thirteen students that started the program and five students that finished the program. For me, college was certainly not easy. There were a lot of things I simply didn’t know in terms of how college worked, the business behind it, the finances, etc. There were many lessons I learned along the way. I am grateful for the mentors that guided me through college.
There were plenty of roadblocks, and I think one of the biggest roadblocks was passing the Praxis. Part of the reason why it was so challenging was because I had never really learned to study properly. I finally did pass the test and in this moment, I realized just how badly I wanted to pursue my dreams as an educator. I did need to pass a few more certification tests after this one and found myself struggling to do so. During this time, I found many odd jobs to allow me to take the test over again. I mowed lawns, cut down trees, walked dogs, and worked as a chef. I did anything I could to save money. FInally, I did end up passing but realized I was not ready to go into full time teaching just yet.
Two of my professors, Dr. Gary Grant and Dr. Kahan Sablo encouraged me to graduate and then complete a teacher certification program while getting my Masters at the same time. I continued working on campus, working as a cook, attending classes and then driving thirty to forty minutes to work with the Northwestern Marching Band. Soon after, I had a mock interview which ended up turning into a real job for me. At first, I was hired as a building sub and then a music position opened up, and I became the chorus teacher at East Middle School in Erie. My first year had its ups and downs. Similarly to art, you must find what works and what does not work. Through the struggles and moments of greatness during my first year, I greatly enjoyed teaching inner city middle schoolers, meeting with them and talking with them. In many ways I was both a choral teacher and a counselor. Mr. Fred Rogers said it best:
As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.
I quickly learned that when students share things, they do so with honest intentions. Students came to my class when they needed advice or someone to talk to, and I loved being there for them.
Unfortunately, COVID greatly impacted my music program and eventually I was forced to teach online Zoom lessons. After three years of intentionally rebuilding the school music program and then realizing I would need to rebuild yet again, I felt in my heart it was time to move somewhere else. I soon landed a job at the Cartwright School District No 83. in Arizona and spent about a year teaching students there. I absolutely loved my elementary students, their energy, passion and motivation to learn.
However, after a year, I felt it was time to come home to Pittsburgh to be with family and friends. Dr. Long, a colleague and someone whom I had met through Teach Plus, reached out to let me know that there was a music opening at his school in Pittsburgh Public. Currently, I work as the band director at Perry High School. Until I came along, there was no band program and so I am working to build one from the ground up. We currently have a Drumline and students with instruments in their hands, ready to learn.
I would say after 4-5 years of teaching in a public school, you realize just how many systemic issues exist and the importance of policy in creating a more equitable playing field. A few years ago, Laura Boyce, the Executive Director of Teach Plus reached out to me about potentially being a part of the pilot program of Teach Plus PA where I would learn about educational policy and how to create change at the local, district and state levels. At the time of taking part in this cohort, I felt like I was in need of better professional development, and I wanted to break outside of the walls of my classroom. This opportunity came at a perfect time and allowed me to see the profession in a completely different light.
I do often ask myself this question: How long do I want to do this for? When COVID hit, I was very burnt out, as most teachers were. I felt like I was becoming more self-aware as a teacher, and I also realized there were so many things I just could not fix. This hurt a lot. However, I have found through the years that we cannot always fix every problem within education, but we can certainly alter our own perspectives and find ourselves in new, healthy environments. Sometimes we just need to start over in order to feel refreshed. Perry High School gave me that fresh start.
“Why do I teach?” I love my students, and I love music in the way that it connects humans together. I teach to continue to connect with new people. I stay because I want to continue to create change and bring light to others. I stay because I enjoy teaching culturally relevant music lessons to my students that will help them become strong and empowered adults.
I would say one of my proudest moments was being able to see a student grow and thrive throughout the years. When I worked in the Edinboro Community School of Music, I had a student who was simply extraordinary. I was able to be her soul guide and mentor. Through music, we trusted and believed in one another, and she eventually went on to play Euphonium at the PMEA State Band and then decided to pursue music education at Slippery Rock University where she is now a junior. There was something so very special about this particular student. She truly made me realize that I have the power to make a beautiful impact on my students. Her name is Emily Eastman, and she is going to be a great asset to the music education community after she graduates!
Recently, I was playing saxophone with one of my students during a private lesson after school, and he was able to go from playing five notes to two octaves. The smile I saw on his face and the glow in his eyes was truly beautiful and continues to be a reminder of why I do what I do. We are capable of more than we can imagine and it’s up to us as music educators to show students the direction they can go in with music, when they practice and work hard.
Teachers are a combination of who you are as a student, who you are as a person and as well as the teachers you have had along the way. Mr. Carl Jackson was my private lesson instructor at CAPA and a pivotal mentor. He taught me that it is possible to hold a full time job as an educator while also playing and creating music on the side. I saw this endurance and strength within him, and I knew I could do it myself. Another pivotal mentor was Dr. Steven Neely. Currently, he teaches Eurythmics at Carnegie Mellon University located here in Pittsburgh, PA. He was a huge mentor in terms of giving me educational advice and advice about life. In college, Dr. Kahan Sablo helped me out a lot as a person on how to navigate college and look at it as a business. He reminded me to always do the best I can, work hard, stay humble and be grateful.
Teachers are a combination of who you are as a student, who you are as a person and as well as the teachers you have had along the way.
I had some incredible music teachers throughout my time in college and Dr. Gary Grant was one of them. He was the head of the department at the time, and he constantly put me back on track when I felt like I was veering off course. Jake Gibson continues to be a very dear friend, guide and mentor. He continues to answer a lot of questions (particularly regarding high school band), and I greatly appreciate his mentorship and friendships. He is currently finishing up his doctoral degree in Music Education at Kent State Ohio. Finally, in high school, Dr. Lisa Pickett was an inspirational mentor and also my AP English Teacher at CAPA. She taught me what black excellence looked like in the classroom. She pushed you to work harder and she cared for you with compassion. This was probably the first time I realized that reading was not as difficult as I made it out to be. Prior to this, I was not given the opportunities to do advanced work, and she was one of the individuals who truly believed in high expectations for all of her students. It is all of these little sprinkles of love, memories and moments of people that have brought me to where I am today.
Though I have taught in many different schools, there are certain inequities I have continued to see throughout my career. The first of those is systemic issues within education. Schools that are in lower-income neighborhoods have less resources. Students are not performing at grade level because of these lack of resources. It should not have taken a pandemic for us to realize that some students had technology and others did not. As a result, while some schools were readily able to jump online to prevent instructional learning loss, many low-income schools did not have the technology to do this. It took weeks and even months for some families to even be successfully contacted by the district and this resulted in substantial learning loss.
I also see inequities centered around student culture. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion became very important words in the aftermath of 2020. It became such a “hot topic” in education but teachers and administrators were not adequately equipped or prepared to talk about difficult topics such as trauma. Unfortunately, there were many schools who wanted to use these coined phrases but took very little action to ensure new strategies were implemented and embedded into all parts of the education system.
Finally, I do not believe we spend enough time really getting to know our students. Personally, I don’t believe in talking negatively about students. There are many classroom teachers who are there just to be there but they are not emotionally invested in our students. As a result, there are classrooms that lack empathy and compassion. We need time to rebuild empathy and model this for our students, and we need to find new ways as teachers to recharge ourselves. Oftentimes, we don’t take time to rekindle the flame that is within us and as a result, burnout occurs. There is already so much negativity surrounding education in social media and although individuals may tell us what we are doing is important, we don’t always feel that love.
I am still in education because my heart has changed because of the love my students have shown me. Students also sometimes have a way of asking questions that we fail to ask ourselves. Some of these questions are truly life-changing. For example, I had a student ask me once, “What is your favorite shade of green?” At the time I did not know how to reply to this question, but to this day, I now know my favorite shade of green because of this student. My students care, and they give me hope. I also remind myself that when or if you leave a place, your students may not remember every lesson you taught them, but they will remember you as a human. No amount of schooling can give you what students give you on a daily basis.
For me, it is the special memories and moments, the relationships, the friendships and the love that keep me going. While working at East Middle School in Erie, PA, I vividly remember taking my students to sing the national anthem at a basketball game or having special shirts made when we sang at a baseball game. I look back on these moments and realize these are the ones that made me feel alive as a teacher. I have been able to relearn things about myself as well. Kids can actually be some of the greatest life counselors as well.
Lastly, I have grown through the creation of my podcast entitled “A Black Educators Truth”. This is a huge reason as to why I became connected to the education policy world and another reason why I remain in the classroom. I love listening to the stories and voices of others, internalizing these lessons and connecting with others. I have had guests all the way from Chicago discussing academic motivations through scholarships, a professor from Harvard University and soon an individual will be discussing the importance of females of color within the STEM field from Google Education. It is always fascinating to see where people are listening in from around the world. I am going on three years now with three different seasons, and I hope to one day expand this platform to include student voices as well.
My hopes for the future are many. I wish for a day where there are more places where students can create during the school day. In addition, I wish for a continued focus on mental emotional health. I think art therapy and music therapy should be available for all students within the schools. In addition, I would love to see schools handle behavior problems in a more just way. I would also love to see music programs back and stronger than ever. There is a true void that music is able to fill. Finally, I hope that every student I have ever interacted with becomes successful in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue and that they find happiness for themselves. In the future, I hope to continue to climb up the educational ladder, expand my circles and be able to make an even greater impact on the world.