North Memphis

Back to School: A Memphis teacher shares her worries and bright spots

Starkisha James lives near Decatur Street in North Memphis. The 32-year-old teaches at Newberry Elementary and is worried for both students and parents facing the challenges of educating their children at home. 

“I am stressed thinking about the needs of my students, as well as my own children,” says James, who has been teaching a total of seven years.

James’ students are experiencing challenges with technology literacy and access to the internet. A lot of her students, she said, have parents or caretakers who work during school hours. This often leaves her students to figure out their schooling with limited assistance.

The average salary of teachers in Shelby County starts at around $43,000 annually. James said that in Memphis, her salary can cover the basics but doesn’t leave a lot of room for lean times.

James isn’t as worried about herself as much as her past and current students.

“My kids did not get the closure they needed when the pandemic happened,” James said of her students.

“Children lacked the knowledge of the tools they needed in order to get to the next level of learning. Online learning had become the new reality so that added an extra layer of challenges for students who were already struggling in-person.”

Some children who were [performing above] grade level needed additional resources to support them, James said. Without access to enrichment programs like CLUE, she said those students are more likely to become idle-minded and gravitate towards destructive behavior.

James wants her parents to understand that, “this a new reality for us all," but she does believe there’s reason to be hopeful.

The pandemic has sowed creativity she said.

Her students have created ways to make learning fun at home like playing games outside with posters and signs for reading assignments, which also adds the physical and mental benefits of movement and sunshine. 

Her students also created support groups among themselves for homework assignments and group studies. They can be with their friends via Zoom, share ideas, and release their feelings about the effects of the pandemic.

Shelby County Schools plans to reopen school buildings in January for students whose families have opted for in-person learning.

“I cannot return to the building and put my own children at risk for coming in contact with the virus,” James said when asked whether she would return to a physical classroom.

“My students are important to me, but I have to put my family’s health first so if that means giving up my profession as a teacher then I’m out," she said.
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Read more articles by Tafui Owusu.

Tafui Owusu (formerly Shelia Williams) is a resident of the Bickford-Bearwater area of North Memphis and a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program. She is also a board commissioner for MATA.