Why I Teach

Each in-service before of the start of the school year, teachers and staff prepare a “Why I Teach” speech to present to their colleagues. This year athletic director and PE teacher Bart Jeannoute was one of three “Why I Teach” presenters. Here is a transcript of his talk.

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If you were to ask my mother, she would affirm that, yes, Bartley has always been a on the hunt for food. Evidently, not much has changed since childhood as I can usually be found close to the back table during faculty meetings. The only thing that rivaled my quest for food was my insatiable hunger for knowledge. ‘

As a child, I lived within walking distance to my public library, and I quickly became a fixture there. I would often borrow the maximum allotment of books each visit, and whatever I couldn’t take with me, I reserved for later. I would take countless notes about my reading in my notebook.

I learned to use the dictionary and other resources to unpack the complex words I encountered. The greatest resource, of course, was my mother. She would challenge me to not only learn new words and concepts but to put them to practice. She gave me a new word daily and tasked me with the job of using it in a sentence at least three times that day. One word per day kept me at bay for only so long. Soon it was two – and then three – words.

Eventually, instead of simply supplying me with additional words to study, my mother instructed me to seek out the new words on my own. She challenged me to work my way through the English dictionary from start to finish.  (I got about a third of the way through in a month’s time before abandoning the venture.)

My ability to self-motivate and to remain engaged with text provided a solid foundation when I began my high school career at Seton Hall Prep. I excelled in my honors English courses and found great satisfaction in being recognized as a strong writer. Yet I felt like there was something missing. All the great authors we studied shared one common thread: They were all old white men with perspectives and experiences that were very different than my own. I became increasingly frustrated by the lack of diverse cultural representation in the assigned readings. So I started my own curriculum. I immersed myself in the works of W.E.B DuBois, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X.  The more I read, the more motivated I became to write. I began to recognize the importance of telling my story. The importance of having a voice and agency of my educational experience.

I began to interrogate some of my teachers about the absence of black faces from their lists of “great authors.” My questions were often met with a practiced dismissiveness or fell short of what I felt to be satisfactory response. After a few weeks of my badgering, a letter was sent home to my mother. The letter described a radical shift in my classroom behavior. I was suddenly being labeled as hostile, accusatory, and aggressive.

My mother was in disbelief. She called me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table. I looked into her tired eyes and saw not anger, or even disappointment, but panic. Without speaking a word she reached into her purse and removed two envelopes. The first envelope was a bill from the my school for that term. The second was her biweekly pay stub. She asked me to calculate the difference between the two. I ran the the numbers and quickly realized her point. She spent every penny she earned to send me to Seton Hall Prep. Countless hours of labor went into funding my private school education. Innumerable sacrifices on my behalf. And here I was causing trouble in the white man’s school with my ranting about appropriate cultural representation and inquiring about author’s intent.

That experience still resonates with me today.  Here was a single mother who was doing everything she could to provide for her child and encourage him in his educational pursuits. But she was also responsible for reminding him about the risk of being too vocal, too dynamic, too black. Subdued into silence out of fear of squandering my mother’s money, I returned to school the next day completely disillusioned and questioning the integrity of my high school.

These feelings persisted until I arrived at Temple University. It was not until I enrolled in my first African American Literature course that I saw authors of color celebrated and recognized as contributing members of the literary world. I was finally in a place where I felt seen and heard – for the first time I actually felt welcomed and accepted in an academic setting.

At the end of the semester I sought out my professor –Professor Roland Williams – to thank him for facilitating such a positive learning environment. I explained to him the struggles I endured as a black student in a predominantly white high school. And I mentioned the challenges I faced in college as the only male or person of color in many of my education courses. Professor Williams assured me of two things that I will remember forever:

#1 I have the right, the same as any other student, to speak my truth.
#2 I also have the obligation to uplift and encourage others in my community to do the same.

That was my “aha moment.” That is when I knew I had made the right decision to be an educator. I teach because I have always loved to learn. I teach to honor the sacrifices my mother made when investing in my education. I teach because writing and literature have also been my vehicles for self-exploration and expression. I teach because I want every student I encounter to know that their stories matter. Their experiences matter.  They should know that they alone are the authors of their own destinies.

I teach because education set me free, and it is my turn to hold the gate open for others.