In part one of our Black History Month series, we talk to first-year corps member Davon Tillett about how teaching has lined up with his expectations and what it's like to teach structural racism to students of color.
February 14, 2017
When Davon Tillett graduated from Jackson State University in 2015, he moved back home to Chicago to find a teaching job. But when he discovered Teach For America, it led him right back to Clarksdale. Now he’s in his first year, teaching social studies at W.A. Higgins Middle School in Clarksdale.
What’s been your favorite moment so far?
Just building relationships with my students. Students come up me all the time, and they just want to talk—“Mr. Tillet, I haven’t seen you all day!” And seeing them get excited about what we’ve done in class, like the projects—saying, “You’re my favorite teacher, this is my favorite class.”
What have you learned so far?
This year has taught me that you need patience. I had patience, but I’ve developed more. I’ve learned to seek help if I’m unsure of things. Teachers should come in with a blank mind. I studied education, so I thought I’d be fine. But nothing prepares you to teach—to actually have these kids on your own, and you have to do everything. I thought, “I know how to do certain stuff, so I’m going to be okay.” But, no. That’s not what happened when I started.
How did you get past that?
Just teaching—and learning the kids that I’m teaching. If you don't know the children that you’re teaching, there's really no way that you can teach them. Some students are more visual, so I have to write on the board; some students I need to actually do the work with them.
What does it mean to be a black man in this role?
I reflect on that every day. We’re studying Latin America and Central America now, and we're talking about structural racism. Being a social studies teaching a black man, and teaching black children—I’m exposing them to so much that they talk about, but don't get into any depth. They don't always know what significance is this is really having on society.
What are you aiming for in your classroom?
I want my students to be global leaders. I want them to leave my classroom really understanding the world they live in, the society they live in—and seeing that from different viewpoints. I want them to be exposed and aware of what's going, outside this area and within it, too—what we can do to promote growth here, what can we change, but also what do we already have that we need to continue. Clarksdale has a lot that kids can get involved with—but not everyone sees that yet.
What will it take long term to ensure all students have a shot?
We have to start looking at education as a way to empower students. We need to actually teach students—preparing them to take tests but also doing more, having deep conversations and discussions. For education to be equal, we have to learn what the children need, and try to meet those needs. Every student learns differently. That's why we have Gardner’s multiple intelligence, and that's why we have the three different learning styles.
Tell me about the movement you’re a part of.
So many of my kids just need guidance. They may be looked at as a problem child, or their grades aren't up to par, but it's just simply that they need guidance in the right direction. And I feel like the teachers here at our school are trying to guide students in the right direction.
Almost two-thirds of the staff here at Higgens are either TFA corps members or alumni. In my department, all three of us came through Teach For America. So we have conversations all the time--about empowering these kids and actually teaching them who they are. It makes me feel like I’m part of a group of people who are really trying to move things forward.
Stay tuned for the next part of our Black History Month series, in which we'll consider the impact of long-time "Delta jewel" and pioneer Lillie V. Davis.