Listening to Shareefah Mason speak about educational equity and the need for transformative teachers, it’s no surprise that she’s a Dallas ISD Distinguished Teacher and a Texas Outstanding American History Teacher. It seems perfectly natural, too, that she led Teach Plus’s Dallas-Fort Worth Race and Equity Group and is a newly appointed member of the Texas State Board of Educator Certification.
Yet, Shareefah will tell you that she really shouldn’t be here. At least that’s what the statistics say.
When students are statistics
How does a young girl of color, growing up in New Orleans and educated in one of the country’s lowest performing school systems, find herself years later on the forefront of Texas’s statewide effort to increase the quality and diversity of its 362,193 teachers?
Statistics will tell you such an outlook is unlikely. In the 1980s, New Orleans public schools were under-resourced, in disrepair and handed off from one leader to the next. More than 70 percent of students—almost all students of color—qualified for free and reduced price lunch and about half would not graduate on time or at all. Of those who did graduate from the public school system, most were not college ready or did not have the resources to pursue higher education.
In a very real way, Shareefah Mason’s rise through college at Nicholls State University was a testament to the ways in which public education has the ability to empower and liberate the young people who need it most.
She majored in government and, after graduating in 1999, began her career in community-level civil service. She did not yet know that her own experience in public school, along with her interest in the role of government, would set her on a path to transform public education.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. Like 1.5 million others in southern Louisiana, Shareefah and her husband became evacuees. They landed in Dallas where her husband had family, and Shareefah soon got back to work in government, this time at the Texas Workforce Commission where she helped low income families access vital assistance.
During this time, she learned about the Dallas ISD’s alternative certification program for working adults—the district offered the teacher training program tuition-free for Katrina evacuees. With her degree in government and state-level work experience, Shareefah gave the program a shot.
“I hadn’t thought about being a teacher before then. But I was interested in figuring out the makeup of public education and thought the program was a great way to diversify myself. It was happenstance.”
She completed the DISD program and began teaching at Boude Storey Middle School in Dallas. Her first teaching assignment as a new teacher and new Texan? Teaching Texas history! And yet Shareefah thrived as a teacher. Working in some of the district’s lowest performing schools, she developed herself right alongside her students and then began developing her fellow teachers, working as an instructional coach and mentor.
As a career public servant, Shareefah says “in teaching, I felt like I found my forever place.”
How teachers empower
Shareefah doesn’t just teach government, she actively participates in it. Working in Dallas schools, she saw a need and understood that only systemic change and active participation would change it. The need? Effective teacher recruitment, training and support.
For Shareefah, the best aspects and most challenging aspects of teaching are essentially the same: teachers can empower students, especially when students see themselves in their teachers. Yet students of color still have few teachers who look like them.
“Teachers change lives. Teachers of color allow students of color to see that they can be empowered and liberated through public education.”
According to the Texas Education Agency’s data for the 2017-18 school year, only 10 percent of the district’s teachers identify as black or African American, and 27 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. Yet 22.5 percent of students identify as black or African American, and 69.6 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. Overwhelmingly, students of color have mostly white, mostly female teachers.
How to empower teachers
“We’ve got to find a way to train the best—to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to teacher training.”
After more than a decade as an award-winning teacher, mentor and district leader, Shareefah has developed a rubric to guide teacher training towards excellence. Using the acronym QUICK, she highlights the characteristics of a great teacher:
- Quality, including professionalism;
- Qualified, in their subject matter and in teaching strategies for diverse learners;
- Unique—with diverse backgrounds, cultures and life experiences;
- Universal, indicating the ability and desire to expose students to global opportunities;
- Intuitive, with an understanding of students’ social and emotional needs;
- Inspiring, that dynamic quality that can’t be captured on a transcript;
- Collaborative and willing to learn from others and share with others;
- Coachable—able to be vulnerable and willing to improve;
- Knowledgeable, with cultural competence and a willingness to get to know the community; and
- Kinesthetic, meaning more than moving around the classroom, but moving around the community, visiting homes and participating in students’ lives.
QUICK looks like teachers with diverse backgrounds using their love for their subjects in inspiring ways to introduce students to a universe of possibilities well outside their day-to-day lives. But it also means engaging in and honoring those day-to-day lives.
“If my student has a quinceañera, I’m in attendance. A track meet? I’m in attendance.”
Now as a board member with the Texas State Board of Educator Certification, Shareefah is taking her message statewide in hopes of developing a pipeline of diverse teachers and stronger training and mentorship programs that ensure all students have access to excellent, QUICK teachers.
Shareefah's advice to future educators
Thinking about becoming a teacher? Whether you’re an undergraduate or already have a degree—a career-changer or just starting out, students can benefit from your unique background, life experiences and love for the subject you want to teach.
“You have the opportunity to shape the world and paint on the characteristics you want to see students exemplify to the world. Be open and vulnerable—learn everything you can.”
Whether you want to teach civics or physics, kindergarten or French, you can grow that interest into a transformative experience for students. Just make it QUICK!
Follow Shareefah (and join her!)
Shareefah Mason is a government and economics teacher at New Tech High School and the author of The Survival Guide for Teachers in Urban Schools, The Guide To Enticing African-American Males Back Into The Classroom, The Art of Perfecting the Learning Connection and Gearing Up for Administration: The 15 Steps to Leading the Best!: A Guide for Current and Future Administrators. She is a speaker, trainer and statewide leader in the movement for a diverse and transformative teacher pipeline.
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