Growing up in Richmond, University of Virginia alumna Tamara Dias had several role models. One of her biggest, if not the biggest, influences was her high school Spanish teacher, Rita Willis, who, like Dias, was African American.
“Rita Willis is the reason I became a teacher and now do the work I do,” Dias said.
“She nurtured my love for the Spanish language, and she never accepted anything less than my best. She inspired me to dream big and never underestimate myself.”
Unfortunately, many Black children never have a Black teacher.
This is especially true in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where there is only one African American teacher for every 122 public school students.
In her role as executive director of the African American Teaching Fellows program, Dias – who taught Spanish in Charlottesville middle schools from 2013 to 2016 – is looking to improve such stats.
Since 2004, the Charlottesville nonprofit organization has provided financial and professional support to African American teachers pursuing certification. In return, it asks fellows to teach in Charlottesville or Albemarle County public schools for at least three years.
This year, the AATF – like so many organizations in the educational sector – has been facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the pandemic.
UVA Today caught up with Dias (whose maiden name was Wilkerson) to learn more.
Q. This is obviously a really challenging time for educators, students and parents as it relates to virtual learning. How has the pandemic affected the work that you do with the African American Teaching Fellows program? What have been some of the biggest challenges, particularly from an equity standpoint?
A. This has been a very challenging time for us. Like most nonprofits, we have lost quite a bit of funding and support this year. We are working to continue our programming despite the decrease in financial support.
Additionally, the needs of our fellows continue to increase. For the first time ever, we are working to support them with the tools needed to successfully navigate teaching in this virtual context during a very difficult time. We’ve shifted much of our programming to support their mental and emotional well-being, so they are able to support students.
Q. What are some of things you’re doing to try to navigate these tough times? Is there anything the public can do to help?
A. One of my favorite aspects of the work we do at AATF is our immediate response to fellows.
Typically, we are the first stop for any of our fellows if they are struggling personally or professionally. Sometimes, that may be support with housing. Other times, they need support in navigating a difficult situation in the classroom. We are in a great position to immediately respond with whatever they may need. This mainly requires funding to ensure we can support that need.
Because we are a small organization, donations of all sizes help us do this for fellows.
Q. Teachers already had a lot of hurdles – and then the pandemic hit. Has it become harder to find people who want to go into the profession? What might be your message to African Americans who are on the fence about it right now?
A. We are absolutely facing a teacher shortage. Nationally, for the past few years, it’s been difficult for many school districts to fill teaching positions. When we look at the pipeline of individuals choosing teaching as a career, [and] we also see a decrease in those numbers.
I actually take a different perspective, because I think there’s so much that needs to be done in schools to ensure they are retaining educators. I understand why someone may be on the fence about teaching, because it takes so much out of you, and you don’t always get the respect deserved. I would rather talk to school leaders and district-level leaders and ask them to consider what they’re doing to ensure teachers have a positive experience in the classroom.
Q. What are some of the things you believe African American children miss out on because of the shortage of African American teachers?
A. One of the biggest areas is in role models. You don’t know what you can be if you don’t see the possibilities modeled for you. Growing up, I always knew that teaching was a career that I could be successful in, because I had so many teachers who looked like me. I also believe that every child in this community benefits from having diverse learning experiences.
Q. What’s the feeling like after you bring some of these great teachers in and then get to witness the impact they have on the kids in the community?
A. I don’t know that I have words for how amazing this feels. Ultimately, our work at AATF is to ensure that children in this community have the best educational experience possible. I’ve visited classrooms and had the opportunity to witness how our fellows impact lives. Whether they are walking a child through a reading activity, cheering on a student at a soccer game, or even celebrating Ramadan with a child’s family, our fellows make impact inside and outside of the classroom walls. It is a constant reminder for me that teaching is one of the most important careers in the world.
Q. Who were your mentors at UVA, and what role have they played in your post-college life?
A. As a Spanish major, Joel Rini and Omar Velázquez-Mendoza were two of my most influential professors. I learned so much from them about linguistics, and they were so patient with me when I didn’t understand something.
When I began my work at the School of Education and Human Development, Stephen Plaskon had a huge impact on my interest in completing the B.A./M.T. program. He made me excited about being an educator.
Q. What are your short- and long-term goals for AATF?
A. In the short term, the major goal is to continue to provide a safe space for community- and relationship-building. Teaching is really hard right now, and many educators are feeling unsupported. We want to remain a “first stop” for our fellows to support their well-being.
In the long term, we are working to add more fellows to our program. Our application will open soon, and we will look to add three to five new fellows to AATF. The ultimate vision is to have a team of fellows in each school in this community
Q. Do you have any advice for teachers who may be feeling very stressed out right now?
A. Prioritize your own well-being. If that looks like asking someone for help or taking a day off, you have to care for yourself. None of us can pour from an empty cup, and our self-care is important now more than ever!