Teachers make up just 2% of the U.S. population, but they impact the lives of 56.4 million students in just a single year. These numbers are phenomenal, yet impersonal. To get an intimate perspective from someone who stands in front of the class, I met Kendra Brown ’19 to learn what drew her into this career path, the challenges, and what keeps her going.
Brown teaches 11 and 12-grade math at Simmons High School located in Hollandale, Missippi, a rural African American community. The school is a brisk 5-minute walk from a nondescript building owned by the agricultural biotech behemoth, Monsanto, but a 30-minute drive to the grocery store. The remainder of the community is a mix of mid-story brick buildings mostly shuttered and scarred with fading signs and fields. I only share these details because it’s important to have a visual perspective of where Brown teaches, given the intertwined relationship teachers have in the community and the responsibility they carry in elevating it.
Brown was unlikely to end up teaching in Hollandale, given she grew over a thousand miles away near the tourist-popular Mammoth Lakes, California, and majored in Public Policy and International Relations. Yet, shortly before graduation, she signed up for Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that trains recent graduates to work in the countries most impoverished schools. In the application process, Brown was able to select where she would prefer to be assigned. She chose “wherever”, desiring an adventure. So, she got one. Reflecting on her first few days in the classroom, Brown said, “I just wish . . . I just wish I knew it’s OK to not be perfect. Education is a scary thing–I’m responsible for these kids’ math education!” Then the pandemic hit, forcing Brown to navigate an environment where even veteran teachers were at a loss.
The school is a brisk 5-minute walk from a nondescript building owned by agricultural biotech behemoth, Monsanto, but a 30-minute drive to the grocery store.
“We’ve been virtual, we’ve been hybrid, back to virtual, we’re hybrid again, we’re staying hybrid. . .This year has been an insane rollercoaster.” The wild ride also meant Brown found herself working longer hours and trying to orient herself in a new community with the loss of direct human contact. “I was an outsider and I don’t necessarily know the way things work in the community”, explains Brown. “I went in and didn’t assume anything.” Quickly finding a mile-wide digital divide in the midst of turning education into a virtual format only meant she had another challenge. “I have students who still don’t have wi-fi . . . Virtual learning assumes a lot.” But Brown’s open-minded perspective and empathy for her students are key to ensuring an equitable learning environment. “I told my students today if you want to retake anything, turn in anything, even from January, that’s fine. Just allowing students grace and trying to be understanding.”
As Brown reflected on all of this, her tone and expressions never hardened or showed an appearance of exhaustion, despite sharing anecdotes of extreme disparities in our education system and how it was left to her to resolve. Many would easily forgive her if she decided a teaching career wasn’t something she would return to. I asked Brown if she would recommend education as a career and if she will pursue teaching after her contract is complete. “I’m really happy with my choice of becoming a teacher. I think it’s a great career and I love working with kids and having those a-ha moments. That makes it all worth it.” Her answer was my own “a-ha” moment. A career as a teacher isn’t for someone who is easily disgruntled by politics, low pay, and economic inequalities. Until the system changes, it’s for someone like Brown, who pushes through the challenges and never gives up.
Brown is about to finish her Teach for America contract, yet, she will continue her career as an educator. She will be relocating to her home state to teach high school math in Richmond, California. Given the unfortunate economic inequalities that comprise this new location, I’m relieved students will gain an exceptional teacher eager to exercise empathy, patience, and perseverance. Too bad she can’t be at more than one school.
Editors Note | Kendra Brown visited our office in 2019 to practice her interview skills prior to the official interview with Teach for America, where she was hired. She recommends other students give it a try. You can schedule a mock interview with our office here.