You are currently viewing Terrence Smith | Teaching in partnership with the community

Terrence Smith | Teaching in partnership with the community

My aunt and uncle raised me. I’m the youngest of seven kids; my brother and I were taken away from our biological parents due to their drug addiction. I was adopted by my mother’s sister right after I was born, and she and her husband became my parents.

I was the only child at home. My aunt and uncle were full of love for me, which pushed them to work hard to afford me opportunities and valuables they didn’t have. I grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood as a latchkey kid, so I would go to school and come home and I’d be home by myself in the evening until my parents returned from work. So I enjoyed school, maybe not for the reasons a kid should — you know, I wasn’t dying to learn or complete coursework. What I loved most was being around other kids. 

My uncle did physical work in construction and supervising projects, my aunt was an academic advisor, and then I went to school every day — so I knew you could be a teacher, a construction worker, or an academic advisor. I attached to teaching. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. School was like an escape for me.

I went to Title I schools in Tallahassee, Florida. I had maybe two Black male teachers, both in science — one in tenth and one in eleventh grade. When I went to college, I started to be able to put words to concepts like systemic racism, bias, and microaggressions and how those things play a part in educating the child. That further fueled me to want to get educated, because I wanted children who looked like me to have teachers who looked like me. 

Here on this campus, we teach predominantly Hispanic students. For many of my kids, I am their first experience with a Black person, period. But I take pride in that. I take pride in being their introduction to Black culture. 

Last week, I mentioned something about me being Black, and the kids’ jaws dropped. They’d somehow learned ‘Black’ to be an insult. They told me, ‘You can’t say that.’ It shows the types of conversations that kids are having and not having, and it fuels me to want to stay in the classroom, to help kids understand that there are people who live beyond their framework or mindset.

I had my first Black male teacher in high school, Mr. Perry West, who I’ll never forget. He was our biology teacher. He was a football coach on our campus, too, and he was a pastor in the community. He was an amazing, amazing guy. 

When I was still in high school, there was a freak accident. A bus crashed, and Mr. West’s daughter was the only student on the bus who died. I remember that night, our school had a football game, and there were so many people there to support and rally around his family. 

I had never met his little girl but wanted so badly to attend her funeral. I remember attending and there being nowhere to sit because of the outpouring of love and solidarity the community and the students showed for the West family. In that moment, I realized the power of a teacher; I realized that the job of the teacher does not end in the classroom and that teachers have a lasting impact, even after the classroom bell rings. 

I can think of many times my peers and I would skip classes for an early lunch or to chill out someplace we weren’t supposed to be, but we didn’t skip Mr. West’s class. And it wasn’t because he had these amazing lessons, which I’m sure he did. It was because he connected with us. He took the time to know us and our families… to encourage us, to help create a plan for our lives. 

I didn’t apply for college until the last minute, even though there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d go. (My aunt is a two-time graduate who received her degrees a little later in life, and I am forever grateful for that example of educational dedication and importance.) I was the first traditional college student in my family, and though I was encouraged, that encouragement came with some lack of experience. It’s difficult to promote and support someone in something you’ve never done yourself. It was Mr. West who told me, ‘Hey, here is a list of colleges you should look at if you’re serious about furthering your education.’ 

Mr. West is a graduate of FAMU, so he was a diehard Rattler. He introduced me to the possibility of getting out of Tallahassee, and I applied to and attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Mr. West played an intricate part in my educational journey; he taught me many lessons of perseverance for some of the most difficult times in life. He was an example for me of what it looks like to show up for your students and your community. My experience with him fueled me to want to do the same thing for others, specifically those in Black and brown communities.

I attended what I’d describe as a rough high school; we experienced a lot of violence, there was drug use, we even had young, high school parents. We were a group of kids from a low-income community who lacked resources and weren’t always afforded the opportunities that our peers at predominantly white high schools experienced. But we had heart! And we had teachers and counselors who were from the community, who knew our families, and who could reach us through our hard exteriors. You can’t and don’t just connect with kids like that. You have to build rapport. 

I was amazed at Mr. West and how he was able to build relationships with some of the toughest kids — the kids whose teachers would be kind of pleased if they didn’t come to school that day. I wanted that level of respect. I wanted to be able to have my heart seen as much as his heart was seen. I wanted to encourage people and to change the trajectory of people’s lives, because I know what it is like not to have a true plan.

When I was in school, I didn’t love academics for the sake of academics. To me it was a ‘necessary evil.’ I just knew that it was something I needed to do. That’s one thing I greatly appreciated about Mr. West’s class: he made the work that we were doing relatable. It didn’t feel like we were learning material to pass a test. He was able to show us how valuable biology is to our lives. He let us see ourselves in the content that we were learning. He had conversations with us outside of biology — he got to know who we were as people. He became part of our stories. 

One thing that always stands out in my memory is that he stayed right in the neighborhood. I think he might have stayed two streets behind me, which wasn’t too far from the school itself. It wasn’t until I got into education myself that I realized how rare that is. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with haven’t lived in the communities they serve.

I also stay in my local community, not too far from my school. My kids love to see me at the grocery store. They love to see me walking my dog in the park. And so that kind of thing also connected me with Mr. West, that I didn’t just see him in the walls of a school. He was so invested in what he was doing and invested in us. 

It wasn’t about a test score or about passing a class. It was about creating a whole, well-rounded student — about bettering the community.

When I graduated from the University of Central Florida, I had a degree but not a job. I was still kind of afraid. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but hopping out there and being put in charge of 20+ kids and their educational growth seemed like a wild idea. To help prepare myself, I jumped on an exciting opportunity and took a year-long internship in Botswana, working at a boarding school in a village called Artesia. 

I had so many life-changing moments. The biggest lesson I learned in Botswana was one that the headmaster shared with me: ‘You can love the kids, and you should love them. But know that if you love them to death, you do them a disservice.’ The idea was that when you love a child to death, you start making excuses for them, and you stop pushing them, and you prevent them from growing. You begin to develop this savior complex which only holds them back in order to make yourself feel better. 

When I came out of college, I had that complex. And it took me a while to learn that trying to be their friend — to be liked — and to save them was doing them a disservice. I had convinced myself that they needed me, and if not for me, their lives’ trajectory would somehow spiral; completely disregarding their community, family, and friends, who were there before me and already in a position to lift the child. 

I had to learn that what I really needed was to be in partnership with the community. That’s what makes an effective teacher.

When I got back from Botswana, I joined an AmeriCorps program called City Year. I was happy to be back in Orlando, because in both Africa and Tallahassee, I’d learned to hide certain parts of myself.

I’d known since I was a child that I was gay. I don’t think my queerness made my schooling hard. I think me not understanding my queerness — how to express it, how to live it, how to be it — I think that made it hard. I spent a lot of high school being somebody I wasn’t in order to feel safe and accepted. I wasn’t directly bullied for it, because I didn’t feel welcome to be it in the first place.

With City Year, I was a support teacher for a more experienced teacher at Meadowbrook Middle School, which helped me get my feet wet in the classroom. At the end of the year, I got offered a job at Meadowbrook. I had fallen in love with the campus culture, and I wanted to stay.

But then on the night City Year wrapped up for the school year, we all went out to celebrate in Orlando. We had our end-of-year shebang. It was June 12, 2016. We made this plan to stay out late, but everyone started backing out at the last minute to go home early. I was so excited because I was planning to keep my job, I was planning to move in, I felt like I could be myself… so I stayed out that night.

I was in Pulse nightclub when the shooting happened.* 

I moved home to Tallahassee the next day. 

I was there for a while. I was there for two months. 

I didn’t want to be in Orlando anymore.

*On June 12, 2016, a man killed 49 people and wounded 53 more in a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Pulse was hosting a Latin Night, and most of the victims were Latino. The shooting was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11.

When I was finally ready to move on, I reached out to City Teaching Alliance, which was then called Urban Teachers. A woman named Chris had been encouraging me to apply. I hadn’t planned to because I’d intended to stay at Meadowbrook, but after the shooting, things changed.

I’d never even visited Texas before, but I accepted the position Chris had open in Dallas. It was part of the first City Teaching Alliance cohort in Texas, which meant I was pursuing my master’s degree at the same time: immediately. I moved here on a Saturday, and we were in class on Monday. 

It was a four-year track program. So the first year, I was in a classroom with a teacher of record, and I was a teacher’s assistant. I had assignments through Johns Hopkins and coaches who would come into the classroom and tell me how to improve. That was my probably my favorite part, because I got to know in the moment what I was doing wrong and how to adjust.

I did have to apply for financial aid and grants for my master’s degree. But I wanted to be a teacher, not just for the sake of having the job, but to be good at it. 

Earlier in life, I’d seen teaching as regurgitating information: if I knew something, I thought I could teach it. But teaching is a skill. It’s a muscle that you have to build. And I wasn’t ready yet. The residency and coaching aspect allowed me to fail without the direct responsibility for a child.

When I was in my prep program, I was lucky to have coaches coming in at least two or three times a month watching us in action, telling us things that we could do, providing us with new research on teaching. But that type of coaching doesn’t continue, and many teachers never receive it to that extent.

Teachers have all these observations and these criteria that we have to meet, and the criteria is forever changing and continuous. The coaching part, however, is not continuous. So we have teachers being judged without coaching on ways to improve.

It’s difficult for early-career teachers, but think about later-career teachers: imagine getting your degree in education 10 years ago, and then teaching for 10 years while all the frameworks change. And not only that, but the children change. Students 10 years ago had a different childhood than students today. So if I’m still teaching based on what I learned 10 years ago, teaching is going to continue to get harder for me. And that’s what we see a lot of now: teachers are not being given the resources or the preparation that we need to truly address the needs of students in this day and age. 

It can’t just be about taking an online module or attending one seminar. I’m talking about continuous teacher training and support to help shift mindsets. Mindsets like: ‘Parents aren’t as involved. Kids don’t want to learn anymore.’ That’s what many teachers will tell you, because that’s what it looks like. It’s the easy diagnosis.

But what if we had the continuous training and support within schools to get to the root of the issue? What if mom isn’t as involved because mom is at work? What if the kid is tired or hungry, not lazy? 

It’s hard for anyone to address the deeper issues when, upon discovering them, we know we’ll have no resources to help.

Kids are different today, but they do want to learn. They have a level of curiosity that I don’t remember even being allowed to have when I was a child. I grew up in a culture where I was taught to know ‘a child’s place,’ and that meant we weren’t privy to a lot of conversations. When 9/11 happened, I don’t remember ever having a conversation with my family about it. I remember it happening. I remember it being in the news. But I never had a conversation with my parents about the attack, or even what a terrorist attack was. Because it wasn’t a child’s place to have that conversation. 

Today, these kids talk about everything. They have exposure to everything. And a lot of adults are afraid of that level of exposure. It gives kids a level of curiosity that allows them to ask questions that I couldn’t have even fathomed. And as adults, it gives us the opportunity to provide them with an appropriate understanding for their age, versus them having to learn some version from their friends.

When students ask me questions, I don’t word vomit in reply. I think carefully about the things I’m going to say. When I need to have a tough conversation with kids, I try to make them the leader of the conversation, and I try to just be the facilitator. I ask them questions to help them build thoughtful answers on their own. 

As teachers, our job is not to give kids ideas as much as it is to teach them how to create their own ideas. And so that’s what I try to do.

I taught a student, maybe four or five years ago, named Antwon. He had moved to Texas from Florida, like me. And he reminded me of Florida. I don’t know how to explain it. But specifically Black people in Florida, we have a particular culture, a particular dialect, and a particular way of being. Antwon at the ripe age of eight had all of those things. But he also hated school. He was what a lot of us would consider to be disrespectful. Even to me, he was not always the nicest, but I loved him. 

I was always trying to figure out, ‘What is it that you need, Antwon? What would encourage you to do your work?’ I mean, he would come to school, he would have a bad attitude, he would put his head down. He wouldn’t do any of the work. And constantly I was asking myself, ‘What is it that he needs?’

I remember one day, he and I were talking, and he said, ‘You guys just wouldn’t understand. You’re not from where I’m from.’ The thing that I remember the most was him saying that we wouldn’t understand what he was going through and why he was so mean and upset all the time. And in that moment, I realized the power of storytelling. I had been his teacher all year long, and I had been trying to get him to learn all these things from me, but I hadn’t learned anything. I knew nothing about him other than that he was from Florida. I had felt like, ‘Oh, he’s from Florida, and he’s Black, so we’re instantly gonna connect.’ That’s not a real thing. You don’t just connect with people because you have a couple of similarities. 

I knew Antwon was adopted, but he didn’t know that I was adopted. I knew Antwon was from Florida, but he didn’t know what my experience had been like living there. And so he felt alone in that moment — he felt like no one around him could understand, because no one had taken the time to share themselves with him. 

So when I realized the power of storytelling, the power of showing up in the classroom 100% myself, I became a better teacher. That conversation with Antwon made a difference for him and it changed me moving forward. I always share my story with students now — all my students know that I grew up without my biological parents, in a family plagued with drug use.

These are things not everyone thinks are important or even appropriate for children, but we forget that they go through it. They are going through it now. And they need to know that there is a way out. 

There is a time after this moment, and I want them to believe, ‘Yes, I’m going through this now, but I could be like Mr. Smith or Mr. West who lives beyond those things; who turns those things into a career, into a lifestyle, into a story that then empowers others.’

–Terrence Smith
Teacher at Uplift Infinity Primary School
City Teaching Alliance Fellow, Cohort 2016
Irving, Texas