This article is part of Ambition Diaries. Read the full series here.
In early 2020, Christina Jordan thought transitioning from serving as a regular classroom teacher in her Atlanta public charter school to becoming an early intervention specialist would be her biggest career challenge. She had seen certain students–many of them Black, like her–struggling to read and write, and failing to understand math lessons their classmates were picking up easily. She was newly certified and ready to help those kids she saw falling behind to overcome their learning deficits and to make the breakthroughs that would put them back on track.
What she was not ready for was the COVID-19 pandemic and the grueling experience of trying to teach stressed out, distracted second graders through a computer screen. She summoned all of her skills, patience, and ingenuity to keep her students engaged and focused, with mixed results. As she was dealing with these professional challenges, she was thrown another: Her plans to buy a home were dashed just prior to closing when the bank deemed her debt-to-income ratio too high. She was chagrined to learn that her $60,000 salary and the $130,000 in student loans were now hindrances to her dream of home ownership. So, at 38, she had to move back in with her parents, to her childhood home in Lithonia, Georgia. “I know that’s my sacrifice,” she says. “I had to sacrifice my credit in acquiring this debt, but I’m doing something I love.”
Her mother, Vickie Jordan, 64, knows something about sacrifice herself. A high school science star with ambitions of becoming a nurse, Vickie completed two years of college at Georgia State University before an unplanned pregnancy forced her to drop out. Six kids later, she’d taken a few more courses, but never graduated. She did, however, become a school nurse, and found myriad other ways to serve her community. Vickie says she doesn’t regret putting family first, and celebrates the course her life has taken.
As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Projectthe pair spoke with Fast Company about their approach to advocacy and the undervalued work of teachers.
The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.
‘I just wanted to do the best I could for my children and for my community’
Christina: I know you went to school to be a nurse. And you were our school nurse. . . . So, how did you being a school nurse fulfill your life goal in loving and serving others?
Vickie: So, it was very fulfilling. It wasn’t like I didn’t use any of my skills [from nursing school], because I did. And I was trained also through a nurse also that was there at the school. So, I was able to apply that towards the students and also towards family members.
Christina: How did that lead to you getting involved in other school activities?
Vickie: Later I became the PTA president. I would go to town hall meetings, board meetings. I would go down to the capital and talk to my legislators to get them to vote for issues for our children . . . towards keeping funding, for electives, like band, things like that for the school . . . informing our legislators on how important it is to have nurses at our schools. It felt great because being an advocate, I could get needs done at school, different financial needs towards repairs, and also with PTA. Getting our students to apply for scholarships.
Christina: So, listening to you share just the different roles you’ve played with PTA and just an advocate for students and a school nurse and a parent, me being an educator, this sounds like you would be a parent engagement specialist, which is now a full-time role because we see the importance of building relationships.
Vickie: [I was a] volunteer [but] people thought I worked at the school or either worked at the board. People would look at me at a different level when I was really [a parent like they were], but I took it very seriously. I didn’t have to be paid for anything and I wasn’t paid for anything. I just wanted to do the best I could for my children and for my community.
Christina: And that definitely plays a role in me being an educator. People always talk about, ‘teachers don’t get paid. I don’t see how you do it.’ [But] it’s not about the pay. It’s the gratification of watching that light bulb come on with my students when they finally get something. But it all goes back to, you know, just watching you and growing up and it’s like, you don’t always have to be financially paid . . . you don’t always have to be recognized for every single thing. Like it’s just that gratification and knowing that somebody received the help and appreciated the help that was given.
‘A lot of people are losing respect for each other’
Vickie: What are your career goals as an educator and how are you working to achieve them?
Christina: I thought about it when I turned 40. . . . I love working with kids. I love empowering them. I love teaching them to be advocates for their learning, but something that I find very satisfying is helping other teachers instruct and just learn how to reach these kids now in the present and just not letting the challenges get to us in a way to where we get discouraged. . . . So, I see myself working to be an instructional coach. But I do think about moving into the administrative role in regards to an assistant principal and eventually a principal, and fighting for the rights of education and educators.
Vickie: What is going on in American society that creates a need for the support you provide?
Christina: One thing I see is right now at this moment is like just the racial relationships. I do feel like hate is taught and I feel like what’s happened in our history–[students] should know about it, but in acknowledging the truth, we could still learn how to work together. [I think that some teachers don’t] know how to share [racial history] in a way that the students can understand without stepping on or letting politics getting involved. . . . I feel like if we could take politics out of it, education would be a little bit easier. a lot of people, [are] losing [respect] for each other.
Vickie: In what ways as a teacher you don’t feel respected?
Christina: Some people look at us as babysitters. We just watch the kids for a time and we send them back home. I feel like people don’t understand that being a teacher, it’s like an umbrella of so many different roles–being a nurse, because we do care for the kids. When they get hurt, we have a first aid kit we have to carry with us when we go outside or in an emergency. And being a counselor and listening in that moment, when they decide to share something with you that may be profound to them. And it may be something that you have to carry to another person to help resolve that situation, or just be a listening ear. . . . I feel like they don’t respect the time that it takes and the dedication that it takes to still want to be a teacher, especially in the present day and wanting to help students learn how to learn and teach them just to be the best person that they can be and not feel discouraged because teachers don’t make enough money.
‘We were all in this together, we were all struggling’
Vickie: How has the pandemic affected your students and the way you teach?
Christina: Man, the pandemic impacted my students socially. They were not able to see their friends or interact with people their age. [There] was no separation or privacy . . . I heard everything. I saw everything, and it was for almost a year and a half. And it definitely impacted how they interacted with each other. When they returned to school, all they wanted to do was play or they were sleepy or they were whiny or sometimes they would speak to us like they were speaking to their parents, and I had to learn how to not let it get to me. I had to dig deep and prioritize what I was teaching my students. Yes, I know we have standards that ethically I have to teach. But in this moment during this pandemic, I had to incorporate more social emotional activities.
Vickie: What creative solutions have you come up with?
Christina: Something I was happy about that I did, is I would take Thursday afternoons to work with my parents to devote time for them to ask any question. I would basically teach them how to use the platform. And if they had any other suggestions or ideas, I would listen to them. It was a challenge, but also let us know that we’re all in this together. The teachers are struggling. The kids are struggling. It gave me a chance to hear from parents that not all parents disrespect us. They showed appreciation and they were actually enjoying our lessons.
That just excites me and it makes me want to excite my students, but also other teachers, not letting that passion die. Keep it ignited it. It hurts, it’s effervescent. But just looking at the brighter side. . . our focus is the kids and we do whatever it takes to help them be successful.