Southeast Missouri State University senior Ke-La Harris of St. Louis, Missouri, says the Lift for Life Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, inspired her to pursue a career as a mathematics teacher.
Harris, a middle school education major with a mathematics concentration, told Southeast’s Board of Regents today that her passion for numbers was sparked by Lift for Life mathematics teacher Kenan Morrison, the only African American mathematics teacher she’s ever had. At Southeast, she’s taken that spark, and with encouragement and guidance, has begun shaping her future as an educator.
“I knew he (Morrison) had a passion for numbers similar to the way that I have passion for numbers,” she said. “The way he taught and his classroom made me feel like numbers can be for anyone, and that people of color can teach math.”
The Lift for Life Academy serves students in grades 6-12 at 1731 S. Broadway in the historic Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis and is a charter school sponsored by Southeast Missouri State University.
“At Lift for Life, everyone passes, and it’s not because the teachers just pass you,” she continued. “It’s because you want to pass, and it’s cool to be smart,” she said. “Lift for Life made you be the best that you could be. They look to the motto that ‘failure is not an option.”
Harris has carried that tenacity forward at Southeast, crediting Dr. Shonta Smith, associate professor of elementary, early and special education, for helping her find her niche in the mathematics field and encouraging her during a diversity course to consider teaching as a profession.
Although she’d tutored before, it was during her Southeast field experiences in area classrooms that Harris began to realize teaching is something she would enjoy doing while inspiring the next generation of students. She says it’s important for children to see themselves in their teachers.
“You can learn math on your own, but I personally feel like having someone that looks like you is important,” she said. “Being a cultural person and going to teach in an urban community just like I grew up in, those children can grow up and be inspired and say ‘Oh, someone that looks like me can do numbers.’”
Harris says it’s important for children to interact with positive, professional role models, and she hopes to be a teacher her students can look up to and emulate.
“I want to let my students know that no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, no matter what you think, you can be who you want to be,” she said.
She chose middle school education because that was an important time in her own life.
“That was a time for me when I didn’t know what I wanted to be in life,” she said. “Kids would say ‘I want to be a doctor’ or ‘I want to be a lawyer’ or ‘I want to be a teacher.’ I just wanted to be something. I just wanted to be successful. But I felt I wasn’t capable of anything but computations and mathematics. That’s all I knew.”
She says she always has been intrigued by the challenge of mathematics and what can be learned from each problem. Teaching is a perfect fit for putting her skills into practice.
“Math is in everything, from the dates to time,” she said.
During her summer breaks, Harris says she tutors algebra and geometry at Lift for Life Academy. Tutoring is an opportunity for her to not only hone her teaching skills, but also to give back to the institution and community that inspired her.
“I choose to go back and tutor because someone did that for me and provided me with the proper tools and necessities for me to do well,” she said. “I should pass it on and help someone else to be able to succeed in their mathematical skills. Even if there are kids that probably didn’t have that passion, I can help them find their passion for mathematics.”
Harris told the Regents she came to Southeast as a transfer student because of its diverse campus, numerous student support systems and organizations, and distinctive academic programs.
“When I visited the campus, I felt like I was at home,” Harris said. “It’s been a home away from home for me. But I’ve gotten to make new and different friends and meet professors. Southeast has helped me live the best college experience.”
Harris said Southeast provides outstanding facilities, programs and campus experiences that together have offered her a great educational experience.
“At Southeast I’ve felt that I can strive to be anything I want to be,” she said. “And the University has the programs and organizations to let me do that and has provided me with all the resources required for me to be a successful teacher.”
Southeast has also given her the confidence to pursue leadership opportunities, she says, including joining and recently becoming president of the Black Student Union and being a member of the Holmes Honors Program.
“Coming to Southeast has helped me to be able to come out of my shell more,” Harris said. “Even with deciding to run for and becoming the president of the Black Student Union, that’s not something that I would have just openly done before coming here. But now I think being involved is important.”
The University has also provided her with unique opportunities off campus, including recently attending the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s (AACTE) 2018 Washington Week in Arlington, Virginia.
“As part of the Holmes Honors Program I had the opportunity of going to Washington, D.C., and I got to be an advocate for the education system and talk to U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt about Southeast’s College of Education, Health and Human Studies,” Harris said. “I got to talk to him about the EDvolution Center and all the unique things Southeast has to support student teachers. I also met other educators like myself, whether they wanted to teach math, science, social studies, or English. I got to make some lifelong friends” who continue to serve as a resource.
Harris, who will graduate in May 2020, is looking forward to the remainder of her time at Southeast and hopes the skills and knowledge she’s gained can help her become a better, successful teacher. She also plans to further her education and one day become a college mathematics professor.
“When you want to become a teacher, it’s because you have a passion and a need to help others,” she said. “Being at Southeast, I now know I just want to teach, and I really want to be able to educate others.”