< Back

Righting an Educator's Wrong


“I don’t give blacks A’s,”
the architectural drafting instructor said in response to my inquiry about receiving a B grade. His voice was stern with a sense of finality.

Staring at the grade, I reflected on the care and passion I put into my drawings. How could he give me this grade? My drawings were flawless and deserved an A. I imagined famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, creator of so many wonderful and futuristic homes, pleased with my development as an aspiring architect. Even in 9th grade, when my peers were dreaming of becoming sport legends, I committed to developing the skills and discipline necessary to be my generation’s Lloyd Wright. Yet, here I was, staring at the B in my coursebook I received by default, based on my complexion. I was devastated.

I loved Architectural Drafting and selected it as my major in 11th grade. I went to the first day of class and saw the instructor who discouraged me as a freshman. The negative impact of this instructor caused me to recalibrate my trajectory from my passion drafting to electronics, an interest but not something I was excited to do. I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I pursued my passion and not let this instructor’s overt bias discourage me. It’s important as educators, especially in STEM fields, to positively support our students’ aspirations.
Figuring out the space shuttle’s trajectory was necessary to achieve the moon landing in 1969. Black women mathematicians calculated these trajectories, as told in Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Our mission as educators is to guide youth on their journeys and help them maintain the trajectory to their “moon” in whatever form it takes.
Working with adolescents transitioning to high school is a daunting undertaking. Some think the mission is impossible. A friend lamented, “Oh the kids today. Their behavior is terrible. You could not pay me to do what you are doing.” I often reply, “They sure don’t pay me what I am worth.” My motivation comes from educator and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who said, “I touch the future. I teach.”
Researchers from the University of Chicago conducted an extensive study on what it takes to keep freshmen on track. One major finding: “For ninth-graders, nothing matters more than belonging. When students feel like they belong, they tend to stay in school longer because it is their family.” Often, school is the only constant in their turbulent lives.
When Past and Present Meet
Many years later, I was fortunate to meet the instructor who discouraged me during my freshman year in high school. I was serving as Director of Occupational and Telecommunication Programs for the City Colleges of Chicago. I scheduled a breakfast meeting with the drafting department chairman to discuss creating a partnership with his department to benefit students who did not have access to transportation for the suburban-based program. The instructor seemed amenable to the idea. I then shared my experience with him as my instructor when I studied at Chicago Vocational High School. After listening to me, he did not dispute my story and offered an apology for his actions, stating that those were turbulent times with students walking out of school and the racial tension between black and white students, teachers and the school administrators. I told him I became a success despite his actions, which caused me to change my major.
After meeting with the instructor, I felt that, in some small way, I righted a wrong many of our young students, particularly students of color, must endure. Regardless of the amount of time that had passed, I held this instructor accountable for his actions toward at least one student of color. Maybe if I persevered and stayed on course toward my career objective, I would have achieved my goal, making his action a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block.
My personal journey as a student, teacher and administrator in both K-12 and higher education has taught me the value of not judging students and teachers. Everyone has experiences that assist them in being their best.
In ninth grade, choices matter, especially as it relates to those who share and support their commitment to education. I’m excited to teach at a ninth-grade campus because I can engage with students at a critical time in their lives.
Dr. Stanford Simmons is a world geography teacher at MacArthur Ninth Grade School in Aldine ISD, Houston. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers, Aldine chapter. Previously, he served as president of Bay Ridge Christian College in Texas for eight years. Simmons has taught postsecondary communications studies and history courses. He had administrative positions at community colleges in California and Illinois.