Symone James was struggling. At the time, the fifth-grade teacher at Roger Sherman Elementary School in Meriden had a class that she said, “needed a lot of love and patience.”
“I fell into a place where I was not sleeping and constantly thinking about work and my students,” she recalled. “At night, I'd lay awake going over anticipated behaviors and situations, and tasks of that day.”
She was so consumed by her work that she said she started having nightmares about school when she slept and battled anxiety throughout the school day. James said it felt like she was far away from what she had once considered her dream job.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, James said she got her love of teaching from her dad who taught her and her sister to read before they started school.
“I felt like if this was what teaching was going to be like, I didn't want to do it,” she said. “This was also the year that we shut down due to COVID.”
She said it was her “teacher tribe” that helped her find “some joy in teaching.” A teacher friend asked her to join a group of other educators to plan a conference specifically for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) teachers. Over the course of the spring and summer, they organized what became the Melanin Magic Conference, which drew over 300 participants, during its first year.
“That, along with involving myself in something other than my classroom – and a lot of prayer to have a better year in the future – helped me to come out of that negative space and renew my love for teaching,” she said. “This past year was probably my best, most fun year yet.”
James and her teacher tribe are working on a third conference and she hopes that one day they’ll eventually raise enough money to host it in person.
I've always enjoyed connecting with other educators and during a time I had lost my own teaching spark, my teacher tribe helped me find it again.
James said finding a “teacher tribe” is the advice that she’d give to new teachers. Whether that tribe is in the same school or even a different district, she said new teachers need people they can brainstorm ideas with or just vent.
“You want to have those people who you can go to who sort of understand those days when you’re really frustrated,” she said. “It’s invaluable for sure because there are just some days where you’re just like, ‘Do I want to do this?’”
Her other advice for new teachers is to do what keeps them engaged and connected with students and their interests while tapping into their own joy for what they do in the classroom. Heading into her fifth year of teaching, James is rock solid in her desire to stay in education. She is currently pursuing her sixth-year certificate in education leadership. James said she’s not 100 percent certain she wants to be an administrator, but she wants the option.
“I love teaching and being in the classroom,” she said. “But so much happens to you and you don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
She said being in the certificate program has given her insight into the why of the things that have to be done for all students, not just one teacher’s classroom. James said furthering her education is another thing that gives her a renewed sense of passion for education.
“Teaching can be so tiring and this gives me something else to look forward to and a new perspective not only to see them as my students but as a leader looking at all the students at a school,” she said. “It’s really a full picture sort of thing.”
Though she’s not ready to leave the classroom just yet, she is considered a leader in her building particularly on issues of teaching through an anti-racist lens. James has led professional development on anti-racist and culturally responsive teaching strategies that cover everything from relationship building to behavior management.
Her school also has a supportive book club that reads books like “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum.
“We were really able to have some real discussion about race and what we can do for our students,” James said.
While Meriden’s student population is predominantly students of color, the teaching staff isn’t as diverse. James said, however, that she’s encouraged by her district’s commitment to changing that.
When James first started her position, she was the only Black teacher in her school, but her district is committed to hiring more teachers of color, setting a goal for this school year for 35% of new teachers hired to be teachers of color.
Given her district’s commitment, James said she tries to make sure her students have a safe place to talk about everything, including race.
I want my students to grow and go to places of work and have a strong sense of confidence. I want them to know themselves and that they are valued and loved. I try to make sure they know, without question, that they are welcome here and loved.