For Kewsi Burgess, a sixth grade teacher at the Thomas O'Brien Academy of Science and Technology in the Albany City School District, one of the toughest lessons he had to learn as a new teacher, and as an African American man, was how to fit in.
After a rocky first year, he realized his best strategy was just to be himself.
“I had to stop worrying about whether people liked me, and do what was best for my kids and my community,” he said.
Today the Albany Public School Teachers Association member is working toward a Ph.D. focused on the educational experiences of black boys. He hopes to use his personal and professional experiences to help close the achievement gap.
Burgess was one of six graduate student panelists who participated in "Pathways and Passion: Choosing Education and Mental Health Careers", a Zoom panel discussion sponsored in June by NYSUT, United University Professions and the State University of New York at Albany. The event was funded through a National Education Association grant.
The panelists are mentors in SUNY Albany’s Touhey Family Fellows Program, which aims to channel students from underrepresented groups into the education and mental health professions. UUP-Albany member Tammy Ellis-Robinson, assistant professor in special education, and the program’s faculty director, moderated the forum which included dozens of online participants who submitted questions for the panelists.
“We are so honored to partner with you on this work,” said Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president, who spearheads the statewide union’s Take A Look At Teaching initiative, which seeks to find solutions to the statewide teacher shortage and lack of educator diversity. “The current health crisis, and widespread protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, highlights again the need to address racism in our society. By bringing your experiences and perspectives into your professions, you can become change agents within your communities.”
Kristin Collins was inspired to pursue a degree in special education because she wanted to be the teacher of color that she never had throughout her K-12 education.
“For kids of color growing up in the world today, I want to send the message that they can be a teacher,” said Collins who didn’t see an educator who looked like her until college. “Giving students that kind of exposure is important.”
Taja Young, a Ph.D. student in UAlbany’s educational psychology and methodology program, lost her 19-year-old brother and a 17-year-old student to gun violence. She is determined to be “a change agent” within her community through violence intervention. Her dissertation will focus on the societal challenges facing black boys and men. Other forum topics addressed the panelists’ future career goals, academic paths and inspiration for choosing their field.
Increasing diversity in teaching and mental health care isn’t a problem we can combat alone, said Ellis-Robinson. “We’re glad we can work with NYSUT and community educators,” she said. “These are the professions that change the world and make it a better place.”
For information about NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching initiative, visit nysut.org/lookatteaching.