Teacher Appreciation Week Conversation: Shavar Jeffries & KIPP Teacher Kinyette Henderson on the Impact & Importance of Teachers of Color

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, DFER President Shavar Jeffries sat down with Kinyette Henderson, a 5th grade teacher at KIPP Team Academy in Newark, New Jersey for a candid conversation about the important role that teachers — particularly teachers of color — play in the classroom and in our students’ lives every day.

As you’ll hear in the course of their conversation, Kinyette and Shavar share a special bond. Not only is she an excellent young educator with an powerful story, Kinyette also teaches Shavar’s daughter this year (her favorite teacher, of course) and was Shavar’s mentee when he founded KIPP Team Academy more than a decade ago.

Great public school teachers like Kinyette are central to our kids’ success, so we are excited to help share her inspiring journey in hopes of continuing to find new ways to support and build the pipeline of teachers and leaders of color in communities across the country.  

Listen to their conversation here: 


Full Transcript:

Shavar Jeffries: So how are you doing Kinyette?

Kinyette Henderson: I’m doing well, how are you?

Shavar: Good, good. I’m very excited to have this conversation with you and I’m very excited for who you are and everything you’ve done. First it’d be great if you could just talk about your journey, I mean what prompted you to want to become a teacher?

Kinyette: Well when I think back about my educational journey, I really always start in the same place, which I feel like is a really odd place for most people to start when they think about their academic journey. I think most people describe their great glorious college years, but I go back a little bit further to actually when I was in middle school, attending a charter school in Newark for me like Team Academy is really where I thought about education differently thn how I’d always known it. In my opinion, my journey was going to be, go to high school, get a job, help out my family, and that was kinda my thought process. But going to Team, it had me look at education and the possibilities of education a lot differently, and it really opened my mind to where I could go next.

Kinyette: And I think that’s where i really started to understand how powerful and transformational a good education could be, for a student especially [from] an urban area. So from there, wanting to go to boarding school was kind of like my next educational risk I would call it because it was definitely outside of the norm, and when I got to boarding school, noticing how well prepared I was to sit in a room with my counterparts who were much different from me who came from different areas who in my opinion I assumed would be much more well prepared than a girl from Newark, and being able to, you know, play on the same level and be on par with their academic language and the requirements that they came with.

Kinyette: Like for example, I had a 9th grade english class and no one in the room actually had read this book “Of Mice and Men’ and we read that at Team Academy and in that moment I never thought I would be the one person in the room that had read this literary classic but I was because of the education I got in my charter school. So I think middle school is really where I started to look at how education could really change a person’s life and thought process.

Shavar: That’s great. Now what, what was it where you thought that the folks at the boarding school were more likely to have more of an academic base than you did – what caused you to have those types of perceptions at that time?

Kinyette: I think when I got to boarding school, one I was already a year younger than everyone because I had skipped a grade in elementary school. So being, you know a 12 year old girl from, from an inner city I just assumed people coming from more affluent parts of the world or more affluent cities, were just more prepared to go to boarding school and go to college. In my head it was just kind of the norm, that people that came from from really rich areas, they were so well prepared to do really well here and then inevitably go to college, and it just seemed like such a steeper mountain for me to have to climb and a more arduous journey that I would have to go through.

Kinyette: So I came in just kind of with my psyche being a little different and just assuming I would not be able to compete because I didn’t go to the same sort of, you know after school programs, I maybe didn’t do the same extracurriculars, my parents didn’t go to college so I didn’t have that extra resource, or different things like that I thought would hold me back in that situation. I think actually turned out to be what motivated me to make sure I was on the same playing field and that I had to just be more confident in myself and what- where my journey had led me but yeah I definitely thought that because i didn’t come from as affluent a community, that I would not be as prepared to succeed in those environments.

Shavar: Ok great, great. And so then you went to boarding school, and how did you feel that your education at Team Academy helped to prepare you for boarding school?

Kinyette: I think my Team academy education prepared me in a number of different ways. One, I felt academically confident, I feel like we did really really challenging work at Team, so in my head I could tackle pretty much any assignment that would be put in front of me. I had this idea that you know I knew I was smart and I knew I could work really hard and I knew if I worked really hard, that things would pay off. And because at Team, hard work payed off. Hard work, perseverance, dedication, determination, all those words that we consistently heard, became second nature so it was just the norm to work really hard even if what you had was really difficult.

Kinyette: And then I think that the teachers put a lot of intentional thought in the curriculum that was put in front of us, making sure that not only was it culturally relevant, because I would say during my time at Team I saw very very culturally relevant material in my language arts class, even having a liberation arts class as a stand alone class was something that you know very much prepared me as well, and then on top of that you know making sure we’re hitting standards with math and with ELA and so we are now prepared with where the state is teaching other students, and so I think those – the combination of building confidence in a child, and building self esteem and building this idea that you can achieve, along with putting you know very culturally relevant material in front of them as well as things that align with standards, all come together to make a very successful student that’s ready to go into any realm of education.

Shavar: That’s great, that’s tremendous. So after boarding school you went to George Washington, right?

Kinyette: Yes.

Shavar: And where did you start your teaching career?

Kinyette: I started my teaching career in New Orleans.

Shavar: Ok.

Kinyette: After I applied for Teach for America at GW I went to New Orleans as a 2014 core member for Teach for America, and that is where I did my first two years. One year in uptown New Orleans and then my second year in Hollygrove.

Shavar: And what was that experience like?

Kinyette: I think that experience is what – is how I knew I wanted to be a teacher for the long run. In college, I think I came into college like a lot of people – not knowing where exactly I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to work with education somehow some way. I didn’t know if that was in the classroom, or outside of the classroom or in what aspect i wanted to work with it. But once I applied for Teach for America and went down to New Orleans, that- those two years really made my journey.

Kinyette: I learned a lot of things about myself, I learned a lot of things about what it means to be an educator, I learned a lot of things about what it means to stand in front of children every day and have them – you know – feeding into everything that you’re saying and then also questioning you on things that you’re saying and you really being a part of their process of growing up and becoming an adult. And I’ve realized how tremendously honored as an educator, that we are, that we get these moments with kids every single day who grow up to be adults that run this world, and how humbling it is as an adult as well to be able to learn from children. So, having those two years in the classroom with them every single day, at 21 and 22, it really told me, ok: A, there’s so much more I have to learn about what it means to do this work, and B, I’m ready to learn it, so, let me just buckle down and I’m in this for the long haul to see, what more amazing things could come from this opportunity and career.

Shavar: That’s great, that’s tremendous. Now what caused you to want to come back home to teach and to leave New Orleans and come back to Newark?

Kinyette: I love New Orleans. It’s a beautiful city, it’s nice and warm, the food is good and it’s just a great place to be happy, you pack on a couple extra pounds but you’re alright about it. But I think I walked into school every day and, in my kids I saw that we were making progress, but I always felt like there was something kind of holding us back from really really really making that connection, and New Orleans is a city where they have lots and lots of pride from being from New Orleans. It’s a whole different thing to be from that place. I felt like I saw so many similarities between New Orleans and Newark, and so when I thought about what can I do bridge that kind of gap to where I can really really connect with my students beyond the classroom, and in my head, that meant that I had to go home.

Kinyette: And I was – had never really thought about going back to Newark to teach – I mean I had gone to boarding school and had gone to GW I had been to all these other places outside of New Jersey, I had never thought about going back to New Jersey, and I think that was the key because in the end, I would hope that any of my students would feel the obligation to go back to where they are from, to then make a difference there or, put their stake in where they’re from or where they come from and where their family is, and all those moments. So, to me it just kind of seems like the the natural next step of I should go home because I’ve learned so much now and I know what I want to do, I want to do it where I’m from and I want to make sure I’m with kids who were just like me one day.

Shavar: That’s great, that’s tremendous. I’m curious, are there any teacher- teachers, that inspired you as you were being educated over the years?

Kinyette: Most definitely. I actually have the honor of working with my, the teacher who I think inspired me the most. I work with Heidi Moore or Heidi Fisher now, I’m sorry. When you know someone in 5th grade and like that’s your 5th grade teacher you always remember them as “that’s their last name” but, I work with her now – she’s my coach for ELA, and I remember having her in 5th and 6th grade for social studies, and I’ve never heard somebody make ancient civilization sound so interesting and so cool in my life. And I remember in 5th grade just being like “guys we should move to ancient Egypt, this place sounds great! And we should make sure that we can just do all this stuff.” And, we did a project one time where we mummified chickens and we put them in shoe boxes and, did a whole ceremony for them and putting in different jewels and we were so into it and so was she, it just just made me think, “this lady really has the best job in the world because she’s just as excited as I am and I’m 10” and so, her enthusiasm and her natural joy that she brought every single day, it just made me not be able to want to, like I just couldn’t wait to get to her class. Every single day. And now, having her as my coach is just really really cool because I always think about her as being my favorite teacher and everything she did was so amazing, and so her being able to help me develop through this process is beyond what I could have imagined.

Shavar: Well that’s great, and you’re already doing it for the next generation ‘cause all my baby girl talks about is “Ms. Henderson, Ms. Henderson this, Ms. Henderson that” and, and so she loves you, and I know you’re touching the next generation that way. What would you say, Ms. Henderson, is your teaching style?

Kinyette: I think that besides grounding everything in Beyonce (laughter) my teaching style is definitely – because she has some great, some great moments that you can really really drive home with kids.

Shavar: She does. I tell my kids all the time, I said I tell ‘em “you woke up great, you woke up like this, you woke up amazing.”

Kinyette: That’s what I’m saying!

Shavar: You don’t need to do anything else, when you woke up, God gave you everything you need to, to be amazing. Every second of every day.

Kinyette: Yes! We have the same 24 hours as Beyonce Knowles-Carter, what will you do with them?

Shavar: That’s right.

Kinyette: So I think that my teaching style is a mix of… trying to – I say trying because every day I’m trying to figure out how I can get even better with this – of trying to be extremely culturally relevant, and then at the same time, bring it to our community as well. So not just what we look like, but where we live as well. So mixing anything that we read with, let’s compare this to our world today, let’s make everything relevant so you see the importance of it. Because as an English teacher sometimes, we read books about characters who don’t look like us, who don’t live in the same place as us and it seems very detached, and that’s when kids start to check out, and that’s when they start to not actually be able to engage and grapple with the text.  And you have to figure out a way, “ok, how can I make it so my kids can somehow connect with this character or somehome see a parallel” and typically, there’s something that they can connect with, either based off their community, or based off their heritage as a people.

Kinyette: So I try to do that every single day, and inspiring kids to A, be proud of where you live, be proud of what you look like, be proud of who you are, because all of that together, it makes up something beautiful. And so “let’s look at this character, do we think that they are proud of who they are, do they seem proud of where they are,” different things like that, and this idea that pride needs to be instilled in all of us from a very young age. Because imagine if at 10, you had pride in yourself and your community and your heritage, and then you were going out into the world you are pretty much a recipe for a change agent. And so, just trying to make sure that my kids feel that every single day when they come in, and when they leave.

Shavar: That’s great. You know you talked a few times Ms. Henderson about, you know, culturally relevant education, and you just talked about how important that is to you. What do you think it means, particularly given the type of, um, students you have, which are largely students of color, I mean what does it mean to you to be a woman of color teaching back home to a school that’s largely students of color?

Kinyette: I think the main thing I see as a responsibility of mine is to show them that there are different paths of success. Sometimes, kids largely of color live in the inner city, we tend to have as we’re younger, ideas of what success looks like, and there are very narrow paths of what you can be to be successful. It means that you either do this or you do this or you do that. And there are just these streamlined, narrow roads. But, I try and show them that “hey look, I’m an educator, I’m a female educator, I’m a young female educator, and I consider myself very successful.” I went to college, I live on my own, I take care of myself, I’m able to provide for my family if I need to” and giving them an example of “ok, so this is actually another option for me as well. I can work in education, and I could also be successful. I don’t necessarily have to go one of those other pre-determined routes, this is an option for me.”

Kinyette: And so I think especially as a women, showing like the young girls I work with, or the young girls that I teach, what it means to be a strong woman. Right? What it means to use my words if I’m having a disagreement with someone. What it means to support one another aside from disagreement. So whenever they see me interacting with other co-workers, I make sure that these are all positive interactions, and all these things that they’re watching – because they’re watching us every single day and they’re watching how we interact and they’re watching what we say, and I want to sort of show them that this is what it means to be a young successful woman at work. This is what it means to be doing this at this age, and just showing them that this is all possible, and it may not have been something you thought about before, but is definitely something you can attain.

Shavar: Well that’s, that’s great. I have one last question for you cause I know you’ve gotta get back and get to these babies. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to anyone else thinking about becoming a teacher?

Kinyette: I think the one thing I would say is to do a lot of self reflection, to learn more about who you are before you step into this work, because the thing about being a teacher, being an educator and you working with- you’re working with kids everyday, kids read personality really really really well, and they read adults really well. And you want to be very genuine and authentic with them because that’s the best way to connect with them, to get them to trust you, for you to start to trust them. You have to check any bias you may have, check any other thing within yourself before you can step into a room and be in front of them. And so I think it takes a lot of self-discovery, a lot of research, a lot of things you have to do to just figure out yourself and where you’re going to be and why you’re stepping in front of these kids and why they should trust you, and how they should trust you, before you just jump right in.

Kinyette: Because at the end of the day, the product and the result that comes from that is going to be something so authentic and genuine with your kids that you couldn’t have imagined not doing this work before, because the relationships that you build with kids that you teach every day is something of beauty, because you really see them become little people, and like little adults and you start to see them grow and progress and things that they came in unsure and not having much confidence about now they can do with ease, and you’re being a part of that and they’re counting you as a part of that. You know, you’re going to be a part of a child’s journey, a part of a child’s academic journey, a part of their next couple steps and you want to know, why you’re in there and what you’re going to to contribute to them and how they can utilize you to be as successful as possible.

Shavar: Well you’re amazing, it is just amazing for me to think 15 years ago, when you were in 5th grade at Team when we started the school, now my daughter in 5th grade is being taught by you, other than the fact that it reminds me that I’m becoming a very old man right now, it’s just, amazing. And you’re a blessing, I mean your blessing to these kids, you’re a blessing to our community, you’re a blessing to this world, and thank you. Thank you for everything you do. And, we can’t do enough to express our appreciation for you and for teachers like you, but we just want you to know how much we love you and appreciate you, and are here to support you in any way we can. So thank you.

Kinyette: Thank you so much for having me, this was great.

Shavar: Alright, God bless, thank you, thank you Ms. Henderson, take care.

Kinyette: Ok you too.   

Shavar: Bye bye.

Kinyette: Bye.