Diary of A Young Pro: Garry Mitchell
2) How old are you?
24 years old
3) What is your job title?
5th Grade History (better known as HERstory Teacher) at Excellence Girls Middle Academy
4) How has the transition been from backpack to briefcase (college to adulthood)?
The transition from backpack to briefcase can only be described as a tumultuous. It seems as though I thrashed, kicked, and screamed from fear of drowning in the pool of adulthood for months before realizing that I was only on the shallow end—toe’s length away from security and safety. Since graduating, I have worked solely in classrooms in New York City as a middle school educator. I distinctly remember my first year out of college feeling miserable because I felt like so many people around me acted without contemplation. In the world of education—particularly education of our black and brown children—acting without thinking marks for me one of the most dangerous ways that we can live out our lives as educators. I had grown so accustomed to being surrounded by people who discussed every issue (to be honest, at times to such an extent that the conversations became unproductive) that I took it for granted and assumed that everyone in the professional world would do the same. I have found, however, that people in the professional world are more open to those dialogues when initiated by others, and I am currently committed to bringing that level of consciousness when lacking.
5) When you were in school, did you imagine your life the way that it is?
There is no way that I would have imagined that at this point in my life I would be here. For some reason I always seemed to think that by age 24 people had their entire lives mapped and figured out…and I just knew that I would be no exception. However, here I am, almost three years out of college and my life looks drastically different than I could have imagined. My first year of college the world of education was nowhere on my radar. I assumed that I would go into medicine, you know, because I wanted to “help people.” It was not until the end of my sophomore year of college that I really began to develop a passion for education specifically and wanted to find my way into the classroom. I remember taking a class with Dr. Arnetha Ball on education and while there were so many mind-altering readings on education, one in particular stuck with me: Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard. As crazy as it sounds, before reading that book, I never saw myself as the one in the classroom, creating a space in which students understand the complex ways in which their past informs their present; this all done in the name of equipping students with the tools necessary to forge their own paths for the future. When I tell you I left reading that book feeling like the system had us—black people—all the way messed up… It was then that I decided to dip my pinky toe into the pool of education. I decided to apply for and was accepted as member of Teach For America 2013 Corps. My first year of teaching was like some Drake breakup song—constantly feeling totally in love with students but totally betrayed by the system but too proud to admit I still wanted to be a part of it and also too tired to figure out how to fix it. Despite the challenges, I looked up at the end of my first year and realized that somewhere in between House of Cards and Harlem Bodega Tuna Melts, teaching had worked its way onto my addiction list. Here I am, 876 student notes, 538 parent phone calls, and 270 students later still hooked. I would have never guessed that I would love teaching as much as I do and that working with ten year olds on a daily basis would enrich me the way that it has. However, here I am and looking to stay if the kids don’t get fed up with my corny jokes or stuffed animal mascots anytime soon.
6) What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during these transitional years?
The biggest challenge that I have faced is honestly racism in the world of education. Yes, racism is a strong word, but that is exactly what it is. The crazy part is that in some spaces within the world of education, you have no clout because you have no teaching experience. Trying to get veteran teachers to understand that your number of years in the classroom has zero bearing on your ability to discern that it is 100% unethical and racist to make fun of a student for having a non-Anglo-Saxon name has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my short life. Ultimately, you have to speak in numbers, because—sad to say—that’s what people in our world understand. I realized that once students stopped running around my classroom, playing tag during independent reading and once my data improved, I had more of people’s ears. That said, racism in the world of education does not always look as blatant as guffawing at a student’s name behind their back. It is harder to target microagressions that manifest themselves in the leadership choices made by school boards and districts and the routines and procedures that we put in place in the name of optimizing instructional time. What’s crazy is that as I look around, so many teachers of color that would speak out on these issues grow tired of screaming into a vacuum. I personally still find it challenging to accept the fact that the system I work in does not adhere to the 90’s clothing line’s catchy four syllable motto and brand: for us, by us. And unfortunately we have not yet amassed the critical numbers of black educators to make that a reality.
7) What is the best advice you have received from a mentor about adulthood and/or careers?
I currently serve on a board for an organization called The Collective, comprised of black Teach for America Alumni. During our board retreat the chair of our board reminded us that at the turn of the 20th century everyone was trying to figure out how to make the horse and buggy travel faster. It was from this frustration that Ford invented the car. She then posed the question to us, forcing us consider whether we were about that “horse and buggy life” or were we “out here trying to design the car” in our work. While it wasn’t direct advice per se, I think that it has significantly altered and shaped how I have approached my work as a teacher since.
8) What advice would you give a young professional?
Be strategic with every opportunity and know your convictions. Young professionals should have a narrative. Not every opportunity taken needs to be completely aligned with those that preceded it. At the same time, not every opportunity offered should be taken. It’s important to be able to link your experiences in a way that your passion operates as the common thread. Employers and anyone else that looks at your trajectory should be able to understand how your passion drove your work in any given role and how it will continue to drive you in the future. Burn out is a real concern in our generation. People don’t stay in one job for 30 years like my parents have. A huge contributor to this is burn out, and passion literally means to suffer—employers want to know, “what would you suffer for?” because many times the object of your suffering works dually as your anesthetic.
9) What is next for you and the next 12 months? Do you have any goals you would like to accomplish? How are you going to accomplish them?
Personally, I want to continue to grow into my role as a servant: I want to better serve God, my wife, and my students. My goal as a follower of Christ is to constantly put myself in a place of humility before God. It’s so easy for me to say no when I feel like God is asking something of me. However, in these next 12 months, I’m looking to truly serve by denying my own desires for the sake of following what I feel God is asking of me. I hope to grow in my role as a servant to my wife by becoming more selfless. I never realized how selfish I was until I said “I do” and ever since it’s been a constant battle to put my selfish desires on hold and cater to someone else. I am still far from being the teacher that I want to be. I’m not yet satisfied with my students’ internalization of what HERstory is or means. My goal for next year is to help them to see themselves in every phase of our curriculum so that they see they have a permanent place in our nation’s future. While, I typically hate when teachers use the word “serve” in reference to their work (because that’s what it is. We do get paid y’all) I think of service in this context as something I’m not doing for the children but with them. I’m merely a guide along their journey to self-actualization that is willing to do whatever they need of me in the process.
10) What makes you special?
Honestly, what makes me special is my team. Being an adult in the real world is like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I have a team of people surrounding me that inspire me daily to keep on pushing. I know that everyone claims that they have the best family and friends, but I sincerely believe that no one has a team like mine. From my 85 year old grandparents that call me almost daily on my commute home from work so they can ensure that I “get home safe”,” to my brother and sister that send me life-giving memes, to my 10 year old brother-in-law who FaceTimes me several times a week to read off new stories he’s written specially for my 5th grade girls, to my coworkers that routinely leave Cheez-Its and chocolate on my desk, to my wife who sneaks notes into my lunch every day, I can truly say that am surrounded with some of the most caring and hilarious people on this Earth. Without them, I couldn’t give of myself in the way that I’ve grown accustomed and the way that I desire. They give me life and push me further.