Undoubtedly, the most important teacher in my grade-school years was an African-American woman named Keisa Sterling.
She was my 12th grade English teacher. She was energetic, gorgeous, intelligent and, most importantly, passionate about the written word. In her class, I read Othello, Romeo & Juliet and Frankenstein. From those lessons, I learned to draw meaning from stories – no matter what form they took. That skill helped me later in life for reasons I’ll explain below.
As much as I loved Ms. Sterling, I also learned a lot from my science teachers, social studies teachers, gym teachers and math teachers, none of which were African-American. In other words, I learned as much from my white and Hispanic teachers as I did from my African-American instructors.
So, why is this an important point? I mention it because my method for learning and being inspired is dramatically different from today’s youth. And when I realized how different I am from them, that’s when I first entertained the thought of becoming an educator.
The headlines are everywhere. One of the biggest issues facing American higher education is the lack of professors of color. The numbers are dismal particularly with African American men.
There’s no published and scholarly reason why black males aren’t teaching at the university level, but the research is clear. If there were more professors of color, students would learn from a more diverse faculty and leave college more culturally competent.
All this makes sense, but I still wasn’t completely sold on becoming a professor – not until I read an essay in Best African American Essays 2009.
In the book, Tampa Bay Times columnist Bill Maxwell laid out all his frustrations after leaving the newspaper to teach journalism at Stillman College. Maxwell always had a dream to teach journalism or English at a black college. He got that opportunity and decided to chronicle his adventures. I was floored by the struggles he faced when trying to teach students at the historically black college. The struggles were as simple as getting the students to buy the required textbook.
Most students had book vouchers as part of their financial aid, so I told those without books to walk with me to the bookstore, a distance of about three football fields. Some did not follow me, and I tried to remember who they were. At the store I watched students wander around, obviously trying to avoid buying the book. Only about eight wound up buying one.
I became angry that I had to deal with such a self-destructive, juvenile problem. I saw the refusal to buy the text as a collective act of defiance. I knew that if I lost this battle, I would not have any control in this class and no respect.
Thank goodness Ms. Sterling taught me how to draw meaning from text many years ago. I did just that after I finished Maxwell’s three-part essay. I concluded “if Maxwell is struggling with a group of kids at Stillman, how many other African-American (potential) student journalists are out there clueless and uninspired?”
From there, I was determined to find a way to help Maxwell, who later returned to the Times. I wanted to do my part in increasing the number of African American professors and grooming the next generation of black journalists while they’re still in college.
I had no clue whether I could accomplish either task, but I dipped my toe into teaching in 2012 as a Hearst Visiting Professional at Central Michigan University.
Those lectures were more than four years ago, so I don’t remember every student who sat in my lectures. But I do remember telling every student that landing as many internships as possible would help their career. I ended my visiting professional deal and began working at a newspaper in Florida.
In 2013, the National Association of Black Journalists held their annual convention in Orlando. Luckily I was living in Jacksonville, so I was nearby. I drove to the convention to attend the workshops. After one of the sessions wrapped up, I took a break and sat in the lobby watching people walk by. One convention-goer stopped and approached me. His name was John Ketchum.
He said, “You’re Khristopher Brooks, right?”
“I remember you. You came to Central and spoke to my class.”
“Oh yeah, hi, how are you doing?”
“Good. I appreciate you talking to us. You told me to get as many internships as possible. That was the best advice I ever got.”
By the way, John is now a social media producer for CNN.
John approaching me in Orlando was the final straw. That moment taught me a lesson. I knew that what I said in front of a class could stick and help students. I was humbled when John thanked me because I had figured I was boring the students.
I didn’t go to school for education, so my pedagogy isn’t the best. I don’t have any experience in classroom management or curriculum development, but I still decided to dive into teaching head first because I have seen how my words could make a difference. I’m still working as a full-time journalist and intend to do so as long as my mind can stand the task. However, I’ve decided to devote as much outside of work time as possible to educating students.
As oddball as it sounds, I began teaching because of John, because of Maxwell’s horror story and because I realize that some students need to see someone with my skin color in front of class.
I could care less what my instructor looks like. I learn from everyone. But that’s not the case with every student these days. Sometimes, in order to be inspired, in order to pay attention in class, in order to build confidence, some African-American students need to see another African-American at the front of class.
To see an African-American at the front of the class signals to the student that he or she could pursue the same career and find success.