Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Memphis Teacher Residency Places More Black Educators

There’s a new program in town at Memphis Teacher Residency, and its context as part of the Civil Rights movement may surprise you. 

Protest in Little Rock, 1959. Photographer: John T. Bledsoe, public domain.

When we think about the integration of American schools that began in 1954, images of students come to mind—children bravely approaching the school doors, often with white people shouting in the background. These images are a difficult part of our national memory. But the ripple effects of integration went beyond the students: Black teachers, by and large, lost their positions. In the years before schools were desegregated, Black educators made up 35-50% of the overall teaching force. That all changed with integration.

Black teachers across the country received letters like this one from a Topeka, Kansas, superintendent: “[T]he majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ Negro teachers next year for white children. It is necessary for me to notify you now that your services will not be needed for next year.”*

There was an immediate loss of Black teachers in classrooms that still reverberates today: only about 7% of teachers and 11% of principals in public schools are Black. Research shows that this lack of diversity directly impacts student scores and graduation rates. One example: Black students are more likely to both graduate from high school and enroll in college when they have just one black teacher in elementary school. 

In Memphis, where 76% of public school students are Black (91% are Black, Hispanic, or Native American), there’s an urgency around this issue. Educational organizations are working to recruit, train, and place teachers of color. The University of Memphis, Rhodes, CBU, Teach for America, MAN Up Teacher Fellowship, and the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), among others, all have programs that address this need. In 2019, Memphis Teacher Residency added to their efforts by partnering with the National Civil Rights Museum to launch the Marjorie Lee Browne STEM Education Fellowship. The new Fellowship is already playing an important role in recruiting for MTR’s four-year residency which places teachers in Shelby County Schools, and recently won a second Black Educators Initiative grant from the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

How does it work? The Fellowship, named for Memphis-born mathematician and educator Marjorie Lee Browne, one of the first Black women in the country to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, recruits college students of color to teach in a five-week summer STEM Discovery camp for middle-schoolers. The Fellows work alongside experienced teachers, gaining classroom experience while also studying the importance of education as a facet of the Civil Rights movement. The Memphis middle-schoolers who are enrolled in the Camp are big winners in this equation, experiencing STEM in new and exciting ways through curriculum from nationally recognized BEAM (Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics). And the benefits of the Fellowship and the Camp will continue as some of these Fellows make the decision to pursue a career in education, and perhaps do that right here in Memphis. 

So early this year, the Memphis Teacher Residency had all the building blocks for a summer of amazing STEM education—but first, there was a pandemic. 

In April and May, as camp organizers across the country made decisions to cancel most educational and day camps, MTR made the decision to proceed with a virtual version of the Marjorie Lee Browne STEM Education Fellowship and Camp. They had selected eleven outstanding Fellows from almost 80 applicants, and they had Campers registered, too. Running a STEM Camp and a Fellowship for the first time was never going to be easy, so making the change to virtual was not a decision made lightly. 

A Zoom group photo captures a few of the Campers, Instructors, and Fellows during the Marjorie Lee Browne STEM Discovery Camp.

Caroline O’Hare, STEM Camp Coordinator, gave some insight to the decision-making process: “We decided to go ahead because we were so excited about the caliber of Fellows who were joining us and the curriculum we had for Camp and, ultimately, because we wanted students in Memphis to have this opportunity, even during a pandemic. We decided that by narrowing the focus of camp and using technology in smart ways, we could have an experience that would be meaningful for the kids and, hopefully, formational for the Fellows.” 

We sat in on a couple camp sessions—again, virtually—and watched teacher Briahna Chambers coach, encourage, and challenge students through a coding exercise. A later session allowed Campers to choose a breakout session, where they worked with Fellows to solve a problem of the week. MTR is using Classkick software, a share-screen option that allows teachers to watch each student work their problems and comment individually, in real time. Camp Director Caroline O’Hare cited the software as providing one of the benefits of a virtual camp; she can see and assist with more work than if she were walking the classroom and looking over the shoulders of students. 

In a Fellows panel discussion, Mayron Mulugeta from Maryland who attends Howard University shared her “why” for joining the Fellowship: “I wanted to take a proactive approach to learning how to serve in my community. Like Memphis, and like the students we see in the MTR Camp, I was raised in a minority community, where sometimes education was underfunded…so even though my major is Mechanical Engineering, I wanted to learn how to be more active in my community and give back. The Fellowship has helped me envision what that could look like for me in the future.” 

In a Marjorie Lee Browne STEM Discovery Camp coding class, Instructor Briahna Chambers walks middle-schoolers through a coding exercise.

Envisioning a bright future for students, teachers, and the STEM field gets easier after time spent with the Marjorie Lee Browne STEM Education Fellows. The current stark disparity in teacher representation is a hindrance to students all over the country—but programs like these will strengthen the educational workforce, dramatically improving opportunities for children. And children, as always, offer a revolutionary, game-changing, world-shaping stream of talent and energy. 

* Kansas Historical Society: www.kshs.org
Read more about how the integration of schools affected Black teachers. 
Read more about the data that demonstrates the positive effect on Black students when they have Black teachers. 

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