From the time she was three years old until she was in high school, Tracey-Ann Lafayette said she knew she was going to be a pediatrician.
When anyone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, it was always “pediatrician, pediatrician, pediatrician,” the third-grade teacher at Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford said with a chuckle.
That all changed for Lafayette, a native New Yorker, during her junior year of high school.
“As I was reflecting on it a little bit more, I realized the draw to pediatrics was never the medical part of it,” she said. “It was working with the kids.”
Lafayette said it was often hard for people to understand why she’d give up a potential career as a pediatrician to be a teacher. She was the fifth-ranked student in her class of more than 400 students. Her fellow high-achieving high schoolers were all planning for careers in medicine and law.
But Lafayette stood firm in her decision and headed off to the University of Connecticut. It was the first of several times that Lafayette had to trust her gut on her career path. The next time was when she decided where she wanted to teach.
Lafayette said she had early student teaching opportunities that just didn’t feel like the right fit for what she wanted out of her career. But when the opportunity to teach at Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy became available six years ago, Lafayette knew it was for her.
“I really wanted to come here to teach, and it was kind of like ‘this is it,’” she said of the East Hartford school where she had been a student-teacher. “‘I'm teaching here or nowhere else.’”
The school struck the right balance for Lafayette of good teaching resources, interesting learning opportunities to help her grow, and an emotional connection with her students.
I felt like an important part of the classroom and school community when I came to Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy, while also getting to learn about becoming a good teacher. And I really wanted to be in a school where the kids look like me.
The majority of the population of students at her school are Black and Latinx. After two years teaching fourth grade, Lafayette moved into third grade, where she’s been ever since.
“Moving down to third grade was a lot because that fourth to third-grade transition is a huge developmental difference,” she said. “But I really like third grade because of the topics I get to teach and discuss with my kids.”
Helping students learn leadership skills and teaching about social justice are among the things Lafayette likes to do with her students. She said she can do those things with younger students, but by the third grade, they have the ability to think a bit more deeply about the kinds of things she discusses with them. They also have a sense that they can lead and make change, she said.
In fact, Lafayette started a student-led leadership project with her class beginning her second year of teaching. The class had been reading a book called “The Youngest Marcher,” which was about Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest child to participate in the Children’s March during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“My kids were like, ‘Wait, she was nine. We’re nine, we could do cool things too,’” Lafayette recalled.
Their revelation came during the same year that Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Louisiana and Texas. Lafayette said the event was upsetting for her students and after some class discussion they realized they could turn their feelings into action.
The students dubbed themselves “Lafayette’s Leaders” and created a school-wide fundraiser called Hats for Hurricane Harvey to raise money to support a class impacted by the storm.
To raise the funds needed, Lafayette said adults paid $5 to dress down and students paid $1 to wear a hat to school. With the help of a little Facebook activism on her part, her class was able to raise between $800 and $900.
Now that she’s been doing these student-led projects for a few years, Lafayette is more confident in letting her “leaders” take the reins of their projects. They recently wrapped up the first iteration of their “Blessing Bags” project.
They took on the project in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Day and the popular practice of celebrating the famed civil rights leader by serving one’s community instead of taking the day off.
For this project, the students formed subcommittees for different aspects of the project. They were responsible for everything from arranging to meet with the principal to pitch their idea to handwriting thank you notes, Lafayette said. They even presented their idea to the superintendent of the school district and asked for his help.
Lafayette said the students collected blankets, socks, hats, gloves, and hygiene items, with the goal of creating 30 bags for those in need.
Lafayette said it is important to her that her students feel empowered.
It’s cool to see some of the kids who might not normally, in other settings, be the ones who are standing up and doing the talking. I want them to know, ‘Yeah, you're a little kid, but that doesn't mean you can't do big things that impact people. I want them to feel like they can speak up – that what they have to say matters.