By Beth Brown, TEA President
Picture it. Coalmont, Tennessee. Monday, August 6, 2001. (Any Golden Girls fans out there?)
It was my first day of in-service as an almost-graduate of Middle Tennessee State University (I began in-service five days before my official graduation). My mom walked me into Grundy County High School—both she and my dad were now my colleagues—and I’ll never forget what she said to me as we entered the cafeteria buzzing with the excitement of 200 educators. Mom placed her hand on my shoulder and offered two important pieces of advice: start saving for my retirement immediately and join the Association. Because my mama is a wise woman, I did both. I certainly didn’t realize, however, that joining TEA would change my life.
My passion for Association work can be attributed to two defining moments in my life. The first occurred when I was seven years old. My parents both accepted teaching jobs in the Pribilof Island School District in Alaska, and we moved from rural Grundy County to St. George Island, a nearly 5,000-mile trip by land and sea. Geography wasn’t the only difference between my hometown and the island. I didn’t talk like the natives nor did I look like them, and that reality was shocking to a young girl who had always been surrounded by people who looked and sounded like she did. I was tall, pale-skinned, and blue-eyed; my new classmates were shorter, with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes.
During our time in Alaska, my siblings and I were taunted and excluded, and my brothers were physically assaulted (my older brother was stoned for being white). My seven-year-old brain could not comprehend why we were being treated that way—and why there were certain things I wasn’t allowed to do, such as participate in the school’s Christmas program. I didn’t understand the why, but I knew—even then—that it isn’t fair for someone to be treated differently because of what she looks like. As an adult I recognize how privileged I was to be so easily returned to a place where my culture is dominant and where I am not mistreated due to my race; however, those three years in Alaska began my commitment to racial justice.
Ten years later, near the end of my second semester of college, I experienced yet another life-defining moment. As a college freshman, I quickly realized that my high school education was quite different from my college classmates’ experiences. At a meeting that spring semester, my journalism professor (I’ll call him Dr. K) asked where I had gone to high school. When he learned that I was from Grundy County, Dr. K remarked, “You’re the only decent student that’s ever come out of that school.” While I truly believe that he was trying to compliment me, I was simply appalled. Dr. K equated a lack of resources and opportunities within my school district to a lack of intelligence and ability of students. I finished the semester and the class, and I promised myself that if I returned to my hometown to teach, I would do everything in my power to make sure that my students never had to hear that judgmental stereotype applied to them. As an adult, I still face assumptions about me based on where I’m from. During my first trip to the legislature in my new role as TEA President, three (not one, not two, but three) different legislators said to me, “You mean they let you out of Grundy County?” The implication was clear: people from Grundy County don’t accomplish such achievements.
Shortly after the loss of collective bargaining and the implementation of the TEAM evaluation system, one of my colleagues asked me why I stayed in the profession; she insisted that I was young enough to start a new career and escape the challenges of teaching. My life experiences with injustice and inequity compel my commitment to TEA’s mission “to protect and advocate for our students, our profession, and our members to create great public schools that prepare everyone for success in a global society” and my commitment to TEA’s 20/20 Vision campaign. I joined TEA because my mama told me to…but I stay in TEA because I have a moral obligation to preserve and protect public education for my students and my colleagues.
Acknowledgement: My thanks to Lee-Ann Nolan of the Tipton County Education Association for encouraging me to share my story.