Several years ago, I was at a big Education Pioneers networking event in Chicago when I felt a strong presence near me. I turned to see a friendly face that I hadn’t seen for over 15 years.
“Tshilumba!” I called out with joy. I was reunited with one of the 20 seniors I taught as a first-year teacher at St. Jude High School in Montgomery, Alabama.
Since then, Tshilumba had gone on to receive several degrees, worked as an engineer and group leader at Kraft Foods, and launched a promising career in education. (As a Broad Resident at Chicago Public Schools, he worked with a number of Education Pioneers Fellows.) That we would be reunited unexpectedly many years later was one of those glorious coincidences of life.
I think often of my time at the storied St. Jude, an incredibly special place that helped change our nation’s trajectory in profound and positive ways. It’s perhaps best known in U.S. history as the campus that hosted 2,000 courageous individuals during the Selma-to-Montgomery March the night before they marched to the Capitol. The next day, they’d hear Dr. Martin Luther King deliver an inspiring address and remind the world that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
February is Black History Month, the only dedicated time we have as a nation to honor and celebrate the significant accomplishments and contributions of African American and black Americans. We do ourselves and our students a sizable disservice when black history isn’t included in our history learnings and lessons throughout the year, or when we fail to recognize that black history is inextricably intertwined with our nation’s history.
More than two decades after I started teaching at St. Jude, I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of having worked in a place so steeped in history. I’m also reminded of three lessons from my experience there that remain as important as ever for me:
1. The power of inclusion.
It would have been easy and understandable for the students, educators, and larger St. Jude community (which was predominantly African American) to treat me – a young, white teacher who experienced a lot of privilege growing up in California – as an outsider who should be viewed with distrust.
I experienced the exact opposite reception.
I was welcomed with open arms into the St. Jude community with an abundance of amazing home cooked meals, invitations to beautiful church services, and loving prayers. The warm and inclusive embrace that I felt upon entering St. Jude was an incredible gift. It made me feel that I was meant to be there.
2. The importance of leading with humility and questions.
I fully expected the string of success I had experienced growing up in school and sports to continue during my first year teaching at St. Jude: Jaime Escalante, here I come! So it came as an incredible shock when the majority of my students failed the first test that I gave them.
As they continued to flounder during my first few weeks and months as a teacher, I had to face the brutal truth that my beautiful lectures weren’t translating into meaningful student learning.
If my students were failing, then I was failing. This was my first significant career encounter with failure – and one of the best things that ever happened to me. It led me on a journey that helped turn my hubris into humility and my desire to have the right answers into a quest to ask good questions.
In my current work at EP, I strive to lead with humility and questions. Embracing diverse perspectives and experiences, especially those that are different from ours or those that have been historically marginalized, is essential to learn, grow, and move forward together.
3. Embrace the struggle required for progress (that Frederick Douglass called out so powerfully).
For me, I worked to take my early failure and grow from it to give my talented students the education they deserved.
I experimented with much more interactive lesson plans and saw student engagement and learning tick up. I sought out master teachers at my school and beyond to learn from them and their practices. I learned to “beg, borrow, and steal” from other teachers who were getting strong results rather than try to figure everything out on my own.
As a result, I kept learning and getting better during my time at St. Jude, and my students benefited as a result. More than anything, I came to deeply appreciate just how hard it is to become a great teacher and how much dedication and skill it takes for the best teachers in the world to travel the long road to mastery.
Frederick Douglass believed that education was key to his liberty; it was. And education still is the path to a full and prosperous life for all of our children. How can we unleash the potential of all students to ensure they have full access to the lives they choose?
My time at St. Jude changed me as a person and as a leader and taught me the value of inclusion, humility, and struggle. While I’d like to think that I played a role in supporting Tshilumba on the path that led him to use his great gifts to make a difference in K-12 education, I know for certain that he and the other students I was so fortunate to teach and learn from at St. Jude fundamentally changed my own trajectory.
The school closed at the end of the 2013-14 school year due to financial challenges caused by low enrollment, but the City of St. Jude continues to serve the community. The St. Jude legacy lives on through the history it shaped and countless lives it touched, and it continues to inspire me to ask important questions:
How can we infuse that legacy of inclusion, humility, and struggle into all of our schools? How do we bend the arc of the moral universe more rapidly toward justice?
Scott Morgan is the Founder of Education Pioneers. He founded the organization in 2003 to identify, train, connect, and inspire a diverse group of leaders and managers to accelerate systemic change across the education sector. An educator, attorney, and social entrepreneur, Scott believes that talented leaders from diverse personal and professional backgrounds can transform education for all students. Follow Scott on Twitter at @scottmorgan1.