Shareefah Mason on Her TedX Talk, Teacher Diversity, and ‘To Be Who We Are’
By Kathy Pierre
Shareefah Mason has worked with Teach Plus for so long she has a hard time pinpointing when she started as a Texas Policy Fellow. In her tenure with the organization, she’s also been a Texas Senior Policy Fellow and a Senior Research Fellow culminating in co-authoring a seminal report, “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures.”
A Texas Master Teacher, Shareefah recently left the classroom after 16 years as a high school teacher to become the Associate Dean of Educator Certification at Dallas College. We spoke with Shareefah about how the lessons in advocacy have “catapulted her career.”
Teach Plus: What first attracted you to Teach Plus?
Shareefah Mason: The opportunity to learn about policy and advocacy in education. I was a teacher in Dallas ISD. And I knew that I wanted to speak on important matters, but had never been connected to an organization or space that could teach me how to do so effectively, and support me in creating ideas around the disruptive work in which I wanted to engage.
TP: What made you leave the classroom in November?
SM: The reason I left is because I have been empowered to work on effective diversification of the teacher pipeline. With this opportunity, I will help to make sure that our teachers look like our students, as I contribute to the cultivation of building out the teacher pipeline through Dallas College’s new bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Teaching. I’m responsible for ensuring the pipeline is diversified and that students are able to see themselves in their teachers.
At this stage in my career, I wanted to be in a position where I could take my expertise and my advocacy knowledge and help to build a community of reflective educators in this new space. Every day, I am working to place students in paid residency positions, so they can make a livable wage, while they learn to become a teacher. I’m working closely with school districts, charter schools, and childcare facilities to train mentors who will support the development of our student residents. I am also working diligently to build out new partnerships with school systems that are not affiliated with our apprenticeship.
TP: How did your work on 2021’s “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Affirming School Cultures” come about?
SM: That was birthed by the pandemic. In a conversation with Mark (Teoh, Teach Plus Vice President of Learning, Research & Impact), I explained that we were simultaneously in the middle of a health and racial crisis and underneath both of these critical issues was the underlying theme of disparity and disproportionality that impacts people of color, especially those that are disenfranchised. We talked about what it looks like to create a culturally inclusive environment in schools. He empowered Dr. Shontoria Walker and me to conduct focus groups and speak with more than 100 Black teachers across the country. We asked them what needed to be done to make them feel valued in their school settings. We facilitated authentic, unfiltered conversations that would become the driving force behind the incomparable paper “To Be Who We Are: Black Teachers on Creating Culturally Affirming Schools.” Mark made the amazing suggestion to partner with Sharif El-Mekki and The Center for Black Educator Development and the most remarkable work was created. We were able to say hey, everybody, this is what Black teachers are saying needs to be done to create culturally affirming schools. We’ve gotten great responses. Readers really respected that we were authentic and unapologetic in our approach. I am so proud of this exceptional body of work because it highlights a marginalized group of teachers, as Black teachers only make up 7% of the teacher workforce. More importantly, it provides very specific and attainable solutions that can be achieved at the campus and district levels.
TP: What is one piece of advice would you give to aspiring Black teacher leaders?
SM: To Black Teach Plus teacher leaders, I would say that this is a sacred space that you need to utilize, wholeheartedly and unapologetically. It is an embracing space that provides opportunities for unprecedented growth, and that allows you to present as your authentic selves. So be innovative and brave in this space as you create the work that you know needs to be executed, to make relevant changes for the Black teachers that blaze this trail after you.
To Black education leaders, I would say continue to amplify your voices on matters that impact Black teachers and students so people are aware of our positive impact and our unique ability to transform educational spaces.
TP: What lessons from your time as a Teach Plus teacher leader do you carry with you?
SM: I carry everything with me because Teach Plus really catapulted my career. The amazing experiences of writing op-eds, presenting at conferences, and being able to serve as a lead author on a national paper, are what I take with me. I empowered myself with the knowledge that I needed to put myself into rooms where people didn’t necessarily think I belonged. I think the most important lesson Teach Plus has taught me is that it is OK to create a space of belonging. It is OK to find my people and activate any milieu I enter. So many times as a teacher, I didn’t feel valued, embraced, respected. Teach Plus allowed me to feel that way no matter where I was because the organization amplified my teacher experiences and ensured that people across the country respected the work I was doing in education.
TP: Tell me about your TEDx talk: how that came about and how you chose your topic.
SM: All my work has been dedicated to teacher diversity. I know the importance of it, I know the impact of it, and it’s something that I’m going to speak about until I can’t speak anymore, because I know how it transformed my life. Growing up in New Orleans, very impoverished, education was so important to me. And having people who looked like me was important. I just didn’t realize that until I joined Teach Plus. Even as a teacher, nobody sits down and tells you you’re only 7% of this workforce. They don’t tell you that Black students will grow exponentially if they have you as a teacher. They don’t tell you that white students have better educational experiences when you are leading a classroom. And just like anything else in life, you only know what you know!
So for me, it was a no-brainer that my talk was going to be on teacher diversity. I could have said a million things about teacher diversity that would have been extremely eye-opening for those who watched it. But it was my desire to demystify three blatant educational myths.
1. Teacher diversity is not about the deletion of white teachers. Actually, diversity is making the system more proportionate.
2. Black teachers can only be successful in classrooms with Black and Brown students. In fact, all students benefit.
3. Culturally responsive classrooms do not contribute to the educational and social intelligence of ALL students. As a teacher, I know that all students grow when their classrooms reflect who they are.
Kathy Pierre is Communications and Media Manager at Teach Plus.