There’s a lot of talk these days about the teacher pipeline. Who’s in it? Is it drying up? How do we fill it — and fast?
At the same time, and not unrelated, the teaching profession is experiencing a period of upheaval. Narratives around staff shortages, resignations, burnout, politicization and other issues are circulating, creating an atmosphere of discouragement and gloom for those in the field and those adjacent to it. But what about those who might have their sights set on entering it?
So we began to wonder: Who are the students in teacher preparation programs today, undeterred by the status of the profession, full of resolve and hope and momentum?
In a new series called Future Teachers, we try to answer that question. Each story in the series will feature a different person who is on a path to become a teacher.
First up is AJ Jacobs, an undergraduate in his junior year at Winthrop University who is studying to become an elementary school educator. Jacobs grew up in South Carolina, where both his mother and aunt were teachers and where he attends college today.
“In my lifetime,” he recalls, “I’ve had maybe four Black teachers, and one of them was male.”
Yet those few experiences of having a teacher who looked like him left an outsized impression: “How I came up and how I grew up — with my mom, and having those four other teachers in those classes — I feel that has built my identity and made me who I am today.”
Jacobs, now involved in an initiative to increase the pool of teachers from diverse backgrounds, shares with EdSurge why he wants to enter the profession, what hesitations he has and why the field needs him right now.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: What is your earliest memory of a teacher?
Jacobs: My earliest memory, I think, was in kindergarten. It was the first time that I had a Black teacher, and she was a nice, older lady. The [school] gave me a lot of resources, and they taught me a lot. I was going through some things around that time. I had just moved to South Carolina from Maryland. It was a very nervous time. And I just remember having a lot of fun, fond memories and, you know, being in that class.
When did you realize you wanted to become a teacher yourself?
It was in elementary school. My mom worked at the elementary school I went to. She was a special education teacher. And I remember being on the other end of things — seeing the teachers’ and administrators’ side, how much work they put into it, how much dedication, what teachers go through each and every day to make sure we are safe and we are having fun with our learning.
And I just remember my mom showing her students so much passion. She was very passionate about her work. She always came to work with a smile on her face, even though there [were challenges]. She just had that confidence every day when she came into class.
I love mentoring kids. I can remember babysitting my little cousins. And I’ve always loved helping others more than I love trying to help myself.
Did you ever reconsider your career path?
There were moments where I did think about other things, yes. One moment would be 2020, at the start of COVID.
I was a senior in high school when the pandemic started. Then I started my freshman year of college in my room, with my bed right behind me.
It was very rough trying to learn about teaching when it’s online. And we were watching old teaching videos from, like, 2005, and they were expecting us to write essays about what we learned, how we can integrate that with our teaching.
It was very draining. It was very disheartening, because I’m a person who likes to learn from books and hands-on experiences. I want to be able to use the knowledge that my teachers have given me.
Why do you want to become a teacher now?
I want to be a teacher because I feel like I can be an agent of change. I can help a child be the best they can possibly be. I care about helping others grow, both academically and socially, so they can do more and better things in life.
And what motivates me is seeing the students. I’m excited to go into the schools. I’m excited because I get to help students. That’s what motivates me, because I know there are students out there who need my help.
Was your own experience in school largely positive or largely negative, and how does that inform your decision to teach?
I think of my public education in segments. My elementary school career was pretty positive, and my mom was always there. But when I went to middle school and was on my own, that’s where more of the negative aspects came into play.
Coming into middle school, I was in reading honors, and I remember the teacher there didn’t really like me. Like I tried to ask for assistance, and he didn’t help me. He took me out of the honors route after that. And then for math, I struggle with math even to this day. My math teachers, again, pushed me to the side. They didn’t sit down and actually give me multiple strategies to help me through. They didn’t push me at all.
And then, in high school, I had a lot of people there to encourage me and give me more of the mentor aspect. In math, the teachers actually gave me materials to work with. They gave me encouragement. They would say, you know, ‘It’s a difficult thing right now, but it’ll get better. You just gotta keep trying with it.’
There’s a quote I like: ‘No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.’ That comes from Dr. James Comer. That resonated so well, because I’ve remembered those teachers in elementary school and high school. They came to me or I came to them, and they said things like, ‘Let me give you these resources online so we can push through with it,’ and we actually built a relationship. I still talk to some teachers from my high school and some from my elementary school, even today.
What gives you hope about your future career?
What gives me hope is being in this program, Call Me MISTER, [a leadership development program for teachers in training], and having African American males or just people of color that look like me — whether we have similar or different backgrounds — that are working together to encourage and uplift each other to achieve excellence.
During the COVID times, like if we’d get discouraged, they’d push us through it. They’re like, ‘Hey man, really think about why you were called to be a teacher.’ Because that’s a calling. It’s a calling to be a teacher.
What gives you pause or worries you about becoming a teacher?
You know how Florida is banning books about diversity and other things? That’s what really worries me. I know for my classroom, I want to have books available by authors of all different races, with characters that look like my students, not just one color or culture.
I want my students to know and understand other cultures, so they can have a better mindset moving forward in life. We’re shaping the minds of our future generation, and I want to make sure that my students at least know about struggles others might face.
It worries me how [those perspectives are] getting taken away from students. And there are a lot of situations where people want to sugarcoat the real hardships in life. I don’t believe in really sugarcoating anything. I believe our goal is not to scare students, but to inform them about what is happening in life and what’s probably going to keep happening, unless we change it.
We’re learning, in class right now, that we need to be authentic with our students — not to have a mask and code switch. They told us to just be as authentic as possible. But if I’m restricted on what I can say, I won’t be able to build those relationships with students. I won’t be able to put my identity into my job or be myself.
Why does the field need you right now?
The field needs me right now because there aren’t a lot of people who look like me in it. And students need different points of view and perspectives from teachers that look like them and from teachers who don’t look like them to fully grasp their own identity.