Teaching is a challenging job no matter where you work, but it’s all the more challenging in a place like Bridgeport where teachers face struggles their colleagues in wealthier districts don’t encounter and receive little or no public recognition for their efforts.
Last Friday that changed when national recognition was brought to some of Bridgeport’s longest-serving educators.
NEA Executive Committee member Hanna Vaandering joined the Bridgeport Education Association and CEA at a Black History Event organized by BEA to recognize some of Bridgeport’s most dedicated educators—African American teachers who have been in the classroom for 30 to 41 years (pictured above).
“The lives that you’ve touched, the difference that you’ve made, is a true blessing,” said Vaandering, speaking from the stage at the Bijou Theater where the event was held.
“Our African American communities play central and incredible roles in the lives of our Bridgeport students and school communities, as they have for years,” said BEA President Ana Batista. “This recognition is long overdue.”
“I want to thank all of our Bridgeport educators for their dedication to their students, and to those of you who’ve been teaching for 30, 35, even 41 years—wow,” said CEA President Kate Dias. “I’m humbled by your commitment and perseverance, because, we all know, if you’ve been in the classroom 41 years, you’ve faced some significant challenges along the way. You have my sincere respect and appreciation.”
Bridgeport Board of Education member Bobbi Brown, thanked the long-serving educators, remembering some from when she herself was a Bridgeport student.
“I was a little girl of color, and these women became like my mom and aunts. I am grateful for that type of leadership and that type of example,” she said. “These teachers are breaking the barriers for children to see that anything is possible inside and outside of school. They create and inspire new leaders that will come back and teach and run for office and be superintendent one day in the district they came from.”
In addition to the many remarks in recognition of the long-serving African American educators, two BEA members honored their colleagues through their art.
Music teacher and performing artist Charles Council performed R&B songs, while second grade teacher Virginia Hudson Johnson read her poem, Precious Moments in History. Recognizing the contributions of African Americans from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou, President Obama, and more, the poem includes the line, “celebrate Black history in one month? No way. Black history must be honored every single day.”
2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Sheena Graham, a Bridgeport music teacher, was both one of the honorees, with 38 years of teaching service, and also the guest speaker. She shared her own experiences as a teacher, both the hard moments as well as the highlights, including the burdens that educators of color uniquely bear.
From being called a racist slur by a three-year-old in her very first teaching job, to suffering from anorexia at a time when doctors didn’t think it was a disease that affected Black people, to having her recognition as State Teacher of the Year belittled by online commenters who thought she only received the award due to the color of her skin, Graham described the role that race and racism still play in our schools and society.
“Black people don’t all come from one place, we don’t all have the same life experiences,” she said. “We work for those relationships that we build with our students. The added pressure for that immediate relationship puts additional pressure on the Black educator.”