Teaching for Ferguson: Volunteer Educators Give Lessons in Compassion

Looking for ways to help amid chaos and violence, teachers from across the country are setting up makeshift classes.

Teachers in Ferguson, Mo., volunteer to clean the streets after protests. (Photo: Courtesy GoodNewsNetwork.org)

Aug 22, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

After watching news reports about the violence, chaos, and heartbreak unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., last weekend, Deray McKesson—a school administrator in Minneapolis—didn’t hesitate. He jumped in his car and raced to St. Louis to join the protests.

“I needed to bear witness and be a part of it and see it and be a part of this story,” McKesson, a young African American, said in an interview Thursday. Having grown up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood with drug-addicted parents, McKesson saw himself in the young man whose death spurred the unrest. “I could have been Michael Brown,” he said.

Yet after enduring stinging tear gas and dodging heavily armed police, McKesson is now bearing witness in a different way. He’s joined a cadre of volunteer educators at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, teaching kids whose schools are closed because of the unrest.

Having come to Ferguson to answer history, McKesson said, he heard the call of his profession and saw an opportunity to make a difference.

“Today was really positive,” he said, describing the joy he felt helping preschoolers learn their words and do classwork—a far cry, he added, from the anger and frustration he felt while marching on the Ferguson streets. “The summer learning loss is real. We’re making sure kids are ready for school [when they reopen] and getting their brains prepped for the classroom.”

As with most of the action happening in Ferguson, social media played a role. Carrie Pace, a 31-year-old elementary school art teacher in the city, heard schools were closed because of the protests early last week, so she tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign in front of the public library: “School closed? Bring your students HERE.”

As the picture ricocheted around the Internet, Pace reached out to teachers and parents via email, according to NBCNews. In a day or so, about 12 kids and a handful of teachers showed up at the library, but the seed Pace had planted quickly blossomed.

Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis and a former teacher, said she was on the ground in Ferguson, protesting against the police, when she saw Pace’s photo and was inspired. Using her contacts in Teach for America, the national organization, she put out the call for teachers to come to Ferguson—and dozens of them responded, helping Pace and other local teachers set up a substitute school.

“My team dropped everything we were doing,” Packnett said in an interview Friday, adding that a group of Teach for America alumni has been the largest contingent of volunteers at the library. “We wanted to make sure we brought all those [human] resources to bear.”

Packnett and McKesson, both 29, said the program has grown so big—roughly 240 students showed up on Friday—that they’ve expanded the impromptu school to a few rooms in a nearby church. So many volunteer teachers have shown up that they’ve turned some away—“a good problem to have,” McKesson said. Teachers who didn’t make it to Ferguson have donated supplies or contributed in other ways, Packnett said.

The students at the impromptu school span the K–12 grade levels, though most of them are in the elementary school grades. Packnett, a former third-grade teacher, said the volunteers have created curricula according to their areas of expertise, including math, reading, and basic science experiments such as an egg drop to demonstrate the principle of velocity.

“It’s typically early-in-the-year stuff,” Packnett said. “It’s kind of the introductory skills [refresher lessons] and the return of critical thinking.”

While tension is still high in Ferguson—the demonstrations continued this week—the streets have largely become peaceful. Normalcy is likely to return soon, although there’s been no word on when schools will reopen. Both Packnett and McKesson say the experience has been transformative and rekindled their passion for their chosen profession.

Packnett said it was a reminder that people who choose to be teachers have “something about [them] that supersedes a job title, because it’s about caring. I’ve learned from some really incredible teachers this week and how they’ve pulled things together. It’s been something really special to watch.”

“What is really powerful about it is, it was a great reminder that this is a grieving community, [yet] the innocence of kids is such a powerful thing,” McKesson said. “They are, like, hope personified.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.