When I finished my Ph.D. at Emory University, I sent each of my committee members gratitude packages with snarky t-shirts that read, “I make doctors. What do you do for a living?” I was so proud of myself.
Many friends, to whom I lament about my seemingly insurmountable student loan debt, pose questions about how much money I make, why I settle for comparatively paltry pay, and why I chose to be “just” a teacher educator when I could be earning so much more. The disapproval and bewilderment was even worse during my eight years as a preschool teacher. Why would someone with a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education ever choose to become an early childhood educator? “And you make how much?”
The beauty of my life, then and now, is that I make a difference.
I make the difference between a young child retaining a sense of wonder and natural curiosity or having the fun of learning snuffed out by developmentally harmful schooling practices. I make the difference between undergraduate students believing education to be the train wreck policymakers and naysayers make it out to be and instead coming to understand its power for social justice – that it’s a training ground for equipping young change agents with both the knowledge and motivation to eradicate all the social “isms” that block opportunity, impede justice, and reduce human beings to arbitrarily categorized bodies. This is the difference I make: teacher candidates who enter the profession armed with knowledge about how education functions on all levels, the proper dispositions for honoring the lives and legacies of every child and family they encounter in schools, and the skills for teaching with social justice and equity in mind.
What do I make? I make everything. Without teachers, you can’t have anything else.
When my intrepid friends pose their questions – implying judgments not only about my salary but about why I entered a career in education, more specifically teacher education and academia – I remind them of what my parents made.
My father just passed away. He was a dark-skinned, tri-racial man born in the Jim Crow South. His mother was a “passing” White lady, with hair so blond and eyes so blue, they mistakenly placed her in the White hospital when she fell ill. After they transported her to the city’s Black hospital – a run-down, dilapidated edifice – she died. His father was half African from the Watusi tribe and half full-blood Cherokee, born in the 1800s and well along in age when he married and had children. My grandfather was born on the edge of slavery, narrowly escaping it by the skin of his chronological teeth.My own father was born in 1931. There were precious few educational opportunities for him. He and his ten siblings attended the single-room schoolhouse on his father’s farm in Franklin County, Virginia. Daddy enjoyed
My mother is a native of Bangkok, Thailand. Her mother was a cook in the corrugated-metal shanty communities of Thonburi, and her father was from Mumbai, India. When she was growing up, compulsory public education typically ended at the age of 9. Boys became fisherman, wait staff, or contributors to the tourist industry. Girls had even fewer options, the most well-known being entry into the child sex slave trade.
Fortunately, my mother attended a British-run high school, where her superior English and math skills earned the respect of her peers and teachers alike. She eventually attended courses supported by the Army, and she and my father both studied at Virginia Western Community College. My mother became a certified nursing assistant and retired as a radiology technician, having worked at the same hospital for twenty-three years.
Neither of my parents could help me in the traditional ways throughout my own schooling. My father was so insecure about his penmanship that he would only let me and my four siblings see his grocery lists. Though I think it is impeccable, my mother has always been insecure about her English stateside and the treatment she endures as a result of looking different and sounding different, expressing herself in a thick Asian accent in southwestern rural Virginia.
Despite all of this, my parents supported my education in every way they could. I had a heck of a time in school as a multiracial student, even more so in academia. I do not remember seeing multiracial people represented in my textbooks, but I do remember being asked for commentary on enslavement and scalping each and every time it came up. My undergraduate experience at Harvard was a bit better, with my one African American Studies class with Cornel West. It was better yet at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where a hip hop class taught me its actual history as a social justice movement characterized by music, art, dancing, and the collective efforts of socially conscious Black people and our allies. Better still was my time at Emory University, where Jacqueline Jordan Irvine told me entering the professoriate would be the most fulfilling, worthwhile investment of my life. She told me I could make all sorts of things.
I arrived in academia fourteen years ago as an adjunct professor, just after earning my master’s degree. I could not afford to repay my Harvard student loans and work full-time as a public school teacher. I applied to teach a Human Growth and Development course, since I had studied the area intensely as a Developmental Psychology major and specialized in Human Development and Psychology in graduate school. My interviewers asked if I could teach “the multicultural class.” I demurred: I had not pursued ethnic studies, African American history, or anything related to the field. But they persisted: “Sure you can. I mean, you’re… Sure you can.” They handed me a textbook and put me before a first-year group of preservice candidates, all of whom needed my blessing to enter the teacher education program.
Since then, I have taught cohort after cohort of mostly White teachers, with a few teachers of color sprinkled in like chips in a cookie – with angering proportions of cookie to chocolate. I’ve heard teacher candidates of all backgrounds say horrendous things about children: “Some kids want to grow up and go to jail. . . . Their parents don’t care, and neither do they. . . . I’m tired of seeing kids come to school with Air Jordan sneakers but no book bag. . . . I don’t know why they don’t want to learn English. What’s wrong with these people?” This, I finally realized, was how my teachers may have felt about me. I wondered if this was what they were thinking when they asked, “What are you going to be today? Asian or Black or Other? The test says you can only check one box. Wait, there is no ‘other’ box. Hurry up and decide, Ta-booty.”
Every bit of sorrow, frustration, outrage, and exclusion I ever felt, both for my parents and myself, has led me to academia. I have been the daughter of two school-loving people who were outwardly denied equitable access to a high-quality education. I have been a multiracial student of color, a teacher of little people who are forming their opinions about “Others,” and a teacher educator to mostly White teachers with cringingly offensive ideas. But I have also seen first-hand how suggesting notions of equally viable ways of living among all populations in this country and all corners of the world can open an eye, turn on a lightbulb, and change a heart.
After eight years as a preschool teacher, I left the public school classroom, reasoning that I could either affect 30 children at a time or 30 teachers for 30 years, many of whom may teach for 30 years themselves. I entered the professoriate because I am still pining for information about how best to attract, prepare, and longitudinally support teachers who will never make children feel like I did or enact violent pedagogies. I come from a money-poor but loving and support-rich family, so I aim to remain in a profession where I can research, teach, and advocate with social justice in mind.
I do this for students like me, for teachers who are doing the very best they can with what they know, and for my family, whom I still support financially. I do this for my daddy, who lived an extraordinary educational life vicariously through his Harvard girl. I do this for my mom, who still reminds me, with whatever words she has, of who I am and all I have to offer the world of education, teacher education, and education for equity.
How much do I make as a teacher educator? It doesn’t matter. I’m living a life worth living.
Dr. Taharee Jackson has been newly appointed as an Assistant Professor of Minority and Urban Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. She taught most recently at the University of the District of Columbia. Her research interests include teacher education, diversity and equity pedagogies, and urban education reform. Her upcoming study will examine the preparation, support, and long-term retention of teachers who are culturally sensitive and teach with social justice in mind.