Tamir Harper always toyed with the idea of becoming a public school teacher. Now after years of advocating for equity in education, Harper is among the school district’s 600 new teachers and counselors starting this year.
“I’m excited and nervous — just all the unknowns that come with it. I’m excited to get to know my students and really just do the work of teaching and learning.”
Monday is Harper’s first day teaching eighth grade English and social studies, the latter being his favorite subject growing up, at Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia. It’s also the first day back for roughly 114,000 district students.
The Southwest Philadelphia native is a product of the school district, graduating with honors from the Science Leadership Academy Center City. While there, he helped found the nonprofit UrbEd Inc., creating a platform for students to engage with issues involving public education and social justice.
He graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., where he was a member of the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program — a full-ride merit scholarship track that focuses on the legacy of the late abolitionist. He was also the editor of The Blackprint, which covered campus happenings of students of color.
“It’s about giving back to my city. I can’t imagine teaching in any other system within my first few years of teaching,” Harper said. “Why not teach for the district? Why not teach in the city that made me who I am and teach in an adjacent neighborhood to the one I grew up in?”
Harper is a part of the movement known as the Black teacher pipeline, aimed at recruiting, hiring, and retaining Black teachers across the U.S. The effort is spearheaded by Philadelphia educator Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development. El-Mekki’s mission is to bring 21,000 Black students into the teaching pipeline over the next 12 years in 10 communities across the country, including the Philadelphia-Camden area.
“It feels amazing to be part of this movement,” Harper said. “I feel as though this is the work that needs to be done, and the work that will actually change how we look at education.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you prepare yourself in college for a career as a teacher?
I took classes in the School of Education. My minor was education. All of my [professors], for the most part, were former teachers. I felt the best folks to teach me how to become a teacher are ones that were in the classroom.
Why do you think it’s important for Black students to have Black teachers?
From graduation rates to lower suspension rates to feeling more engaged. But if we even take out just clear data, who doesn’t want to see themselves as the professional in front of them? Right? I dreamed of being an FBI agent at one point because I used to see the Black guy on “Criminal Minds.” I had dreamed of being a doctor because I had a Black woman as a doctor; her husband, a Black man, was my brother’s cardiologist. So I saw folks that looked like me in medicine.
Who was your first Black male teacher? And how did he inspire you?
My first Black male teacher was during my ninth grade year. I can remember Matt Kay. For me, he showed that you can actually be a Black man. I’ve seen someone that’s doing it. He enjoyed the classroom from my viewpoint. He enjoyed being in front of students. So that inspired me and made me excited, but it also helped me see that I can actually do it.
What style of teaching can students expect from you?
Project-based learning that’s inquiry-driven. They’re going to get an educator who loves to teach and to make learning fun for them. And have them enjoy learning — that’s what they’re getting right there. They’re getting a young new college graduate from their city who grew up every weekend in their neighborhoods. I’m excited to teach them English and social studies and will ensure that it relates to their lives.
What are some methods teachers should use to connect with their Black students?
I think the most important method is listen — listen and learn. Someone said to me recently that the music the students are listening to is not the music you probably listened to, right? I think there’s a new rapper named Lil Durk. I’d never heard of them. But you know what I’m going to do now? I’m going to blast Lil Durk so I can learn what you’re talking about.
Do you plan on making a connection between students’ lived experiences and the classroom?
I think every student brings their lived experiences. So if it’s music, if it’s the gun violence that’s plaguing our city, if it’s the poverty level, if it’s their parents having to work multiple jobs or they can’t have clean uniforms. So I think as an educator, I have no choice but to use their lived experiences and ensure that the trauma that they bring with them is acknowledged, respected.
The TV show “Abbott Elementary” has been heralded for highlighting struggles of big city school districts like Philadelphia. Which character on the show do you most connect with?
It’s a mix of the Italian lady (teacher Melissa Ann Schemmenti, played by Lisa Ann Walter) that literally will do anything for her students and the former lead actor in “Everybody Hates Chris” (teacher Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams). It’s that, hey, I want to do good, and I love the students, but also I’m scared sometimes. And I don’t want to be roasted. Like when I decided I was really going to go teach, I bought at least another two pairs of Jordans. My kids are not about to be making fun of me on TikTok.
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at firstname.lastname@example.org.