My Teaching and Learning Autobiography
By Dwight C. Watson, dean of the College of Education
It gives me tremendous pleasure to be your dean and to welcome your entre' into the teaching profession. Some may think that your journey has just begun, but I believe that being a teacher is a calling. It is more than a vocation, but an avocation, “ a desired passion that enables you to serve our nation's most precious resource: our children and young people. I had such passion for teaching at an early age.
Please allow me to introduce myself through what I call my teaching and learning autobiography. My hope is that from my journey, you may glean some additional wisdom toward your own path of becoming a teacher.
I grew up in the early 60s in South Carolina as the youngest of six children in a devout Southern Baptist family. My mother and father were not high school graduates; therefore, they had jobs with meager wages. They made a little go far and we wanted for nothing. We never considered ourselves poor. I once asked Mom how much she and Dad made when all eight of us lived together, and she said about $11,000. I was truly shocked at that amount as I compared it to what I was making as a college professor and my family of me.
Even though my parents did not graduate from high school, they valued education. My dad, with only an eighth-grade education, enjoyed reading; nightly, he would read from the Bible and the local newspaper. Being the treasurer of his Masonic lodge, as well as a carpenter, mechanic and brick mason by trade, he had many functional mathematical skills.
Mom had an 11th-grade education. When Dad returned from World War II at age 28, he met Mom, who was 17. They fell in love, and Mom immediately dropped out of school and got married, which was customary for women of that era. Mom later returned to night school after her six children were in school and proudly received her high school diploma. She was quick to caution others that it was a diploma and not a GED. Due to my mom's desire to graduate from high school, she had the explicit expectation that all of her children would graduate from high school. Her other desire was that we would all be baptized. All six children accomplished both!
I share this family history because imbedded in this story is the genesis of my desire to value education and become a teacher. I was a voracious learner and reader but had limited access to print besides the Bible, a book of Bible stories and varied volumes of the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia that Mom bought from the A&P grocery store. I had limited access to reading materials because during the time when I grew up, I could not attend the public library.
I grew up in the segregated South. I went to an all-black elementary school. I lived in an all-black neighborhood. I went to an all-black church. I shopped at an all-black grocery store. At least all blacks shopped there, but it was owned and operated by whites. This segregation made a lasting impression on my formative years. When I went to middle school in 1973, almost 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, I entered my first classroom with white students.
But before that, I did have a white teacher for the first time in fourth grade. This was when the school district phased in integration by switching teachers from the black schools with some of those from the white schools. My first white teacher was Mrs. Dodd. She focused on me as a learner and provided me and my classmates access to knowledge outside of the scope of our black community. She took us across the railroad tracks on walking field trips through the white community. I was able for the first time to access the public library, although I could not check out books. Mrs. Ivey, my second white educator, was the librarian. She quickly identified my love of reading and encouraged me to come to the back of the library during nonpeak hours to select books and to read them at a study cariole in the basement.
These two white educators possessed what today is codified as cultural competency. They were able to build a relationship with me, and through this relationship, they assisted me in my own literacy emancipation and provided me access to materials that were limited to my family. They understood that I had pride in my heritage and honored my cultural background by exposing me to autobiographies of famous black people.
While at the segregated black school, I was one of the three smartest students in the school. I always received A's in all subjects and had excellent conduct reports. When I was bussed for 10 miles to the white school, I noticed that I was in classes with mostly black students. I also noticed, especially in math, that I was doing what I considered easy work. I finished my work quickly and began to goof off and get in trouble. Once on the playground another student teased me because he said I was in basic math. I did not know what that meant so I asked my mother. She did not know, but took the time to come to school to find out. From that interaction with my teachers, some realized that I was too smart for their classes. My English teacher, who taught at the basic level, placed me in another level of English called advanced English, which was one step above regular but one step below honors. I often wondered what would have been my educational journey if my mother did not visit my school. I later learned that when students came from my elementary school, they were automatically placed in the lower-level classes because the school was in the poorest part of town and I guess they assumed we were not very smart. With the help of good teachers and an inquisitive parent, I made it out of those classrooms.
I was placed in honors social studies with Mr. Scobie, another white teacher. He too possessed cultural competency. He taught me the importance of relevance. His favorite question was "What does this piece of history mean to you?" He taught us how to take historical events and place them in a comparative context across different cultures and races. I remember him teaching about Westward expansion and talking about black pioneers and the Chinese contribution with the railroads. He also talked about the Great Migration, which was the movement of blacks to the North who were searching for better jobs and more integrated opportunities. Mr. Scobie was also great at parent relationships and would often assign us to ask our parents and grandparents about history. He would give us a historical event and we would have to find out how members of our family reacted to these events, such as the death of President Kennedy or the first time our parents or grandparents voted in a presidential election. These activities allowed us to value our family's histories and to bring forth authentic accounts that were not found in the history books.
When I was placed in the honors classes, I was one of a few blacks in my class and the only black from my neighborhood. When I would ride the bus home in the afternoons, many of my neighborhood peers would question if I was even in school. Later when they found out I was in the honors classes, they began to tease me about trying to act white, and they said I thought I was not good enough for them. The teasing got so intense that I decided to stop riding the bus and to walk or ride my bike the 10 miles to and from school. This continued throughout high school and I felt as if I was living in two different worlds. In high school, all of my friends were white, but at home in the neighborhood, everyone was black. The white school friends and I did not interact with one another outside of school. It was still uncommon in the late '70s for black and white teenagers to co-mingle in places besides school.
Needless to say, this was a difficult time for me. I was doing quite well in school, but I was losing my identity within my neighborhood. I felt like a race traitor because all of the elders in the community were telling me to excel and to do well in school so I could leave this place and make a better life. I really loved my community, but it seemed as if I was being forced out of it. I learned in school how to navigate the dominant culture because I was given the tools of access, but felt that my education drove a wedge between me and my community.
What I needed was another culturally competent teacher who could have shown me how to embrace these dominant culture access traits and to situate them in the black community. The teachers that I hope you become are those who are culturally, linguistically, developmentally, and technologically competent and confident. My hope is that our program and your own individual experiences will assist you in the development of the knowledge, skills and dispositions you need to teach all children.
My life has been created based on other people who fought for the privileges I have – the privileges I have that enabled me to become a teacher, professor and dean.
My life has been created based on other people who fought for the privileges I have – the privilege to have attended and worked at excellent institutions.
So when I look at some of the limitations that others have experienced, I'm conscious of the fact that other people chose for me, to put their lives and their privileges on the line, and I have an obligation to give back as well.
I really have a strong, negative reaction to prejudice, discrimination, hatred and violence, anything that tries to delegitimize or marginalize any of our fellow human beings is a travesty to my fundamental beliefs and values. I strongly believe in social justice, equity, inclusivity and diversity. I too hope that these values will resonate with you as future teachers because every day as a teacher is an exercise in social justice. Social justice for pre-K through 12 teachers is combining academic excellence with broad access, promoting diversity and meeting the special needs of underserved populations. All students may not go to college, but if they do not go, it should be due to choice, not inability or access issues.
I don't believe in settling down. The term implies that the current path I am on isn't valid. It is not always about living your life the way people have lived before you. It is about cultivating the experiences in your life, learning from them and sharing them with others. I am perpetually awaiting a renaissance of wonder. I am waiting for a time when imagination takes over this planet. I pass this mantle on to all of you. May you become teachers who are wise, discerning, imaginative and full of wonder because all of our nation's children deserve teachers with these attributes. As you come across the stage and accept the pledge of becoming a teacher, remember that:
- To be a teacher is signing up to be a role model.
- To be a teacher is a visceral desire.
- To be a teacher is to live a life for the benefit of others.
I wholeheartedly welcome you into this grand profession and applaud this next phase of your journey.