My mother, a single parent of four, always set the expectation that I would attend college—and although we both shared that conviction, there were several obstacles in our way. Neither I nor my mother knew what steps to take, and as a first-generation college-bound student, it was difficult for me to navigate the college application process.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when my African American literature teacher Ms. Bailey-Williams invited me on my first college tour, that I began to feel as if my dream to attend college could be a reality.
As I piled onto the bus with my peers for our week-long tour, I had no idea what to expect. We visited several schools throughout our tour, but we spent the longest at Ms. Bailey-Williams’s alma mater, Hampton University. There we took our time learning the campus history and its culture, talking to current students, and attending informational sessions. Before I left campus, I knew it would be my new home.
Back on the bus, in a moment of vulnerability, I expressed my ignorance about applying to college to Ms. Bailey-Williams, and while my mother was supportive, she too needed help. Here’s the moment I’ll never forget: Ms. Bailey-Williams invited us over to her home to answer all of our questions. I remember watching my prideful mother surrender to her own vulnerability as she poured her paystubs, W2s, and other personal documents across Ms. Bailey-Williams’s dining room table. At the time I felt thankful, but as an adult, my appreciation grows beyond just thankfulness. I’m now awed by my mother’s actions, and by the support and compassion that Ms. Bailey-Williams showed, to clear the path for me to attend Hampton University—which I am proud to call my alma mater.
Looking back on this experience, I am reminded of its valuable lesson: As teachers prepare their curriculum and goals and objectives, as they attend pre-opening professional development sessions, as they get their classrooms ready for students, they must remember to lead with the heart. That’s what differentiated Ms. Bailey-Williams from my other teachers. Yes, she was a literary genius, but above all she showed her students that she cared for and believed in them. Once I understood that, I was able to undertake the challenge of homework, endless essay assignments, and pages and pages of reading. I knew that she believed in me, and her belief strengthened my own belief in myself.
Working in the education field, I am reminded that as we support schools to address problems of practice, educators must remain student-centric and, like Ms. Bailey-Williams, lead with the heart. We cannot allow state mandates, end-of-year testing, and daily paperwork to turn us away from our real focus: our students.
I’m encouraged to see the growing emphasis in schools around social, emotional, and academic development. Creating a context in the academic classroom that nurtures students’social and emotional growth should be a priority, one just as important as the core content areas. I know that my own story may have ended differently, if Ms. Bailey-Williams hadn’t acted on her compassion. In this new school year, my hope is that each student has their own Ms. Bailey–Williams: an adult in the school building that leads with the heart.
(The top photograph came from this link. The personal photograph came from Ms. Bailey-Williams.)