Learning From Black Educators

Renee Moore on sharing and collecting wisdom in a community of teachers

Camilo Hunica

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

On Renee Moore’s first day of teaching—in the fall of 1990 at East Side High School, a rural, nearly all-Black school in Cleveland, Mississippi—she got to school before sunrise to calm her nerves. As she looked around her empty classroom, she heard a knock on the door. It was the husband of Dorothy Grenell, the English teacher who had worked in this same classroom for 40 years and had interviewed Moore for this job a few months earlier. Now, via her husband, Grenell was giving Moore two boxes of curricula she and her colleagues had refined over four decades. In the following months, as Moore struggled to make her own classrooms work, she spent much of her after-school time on Grenell’s living-room couch, listening to her mentor’s advice. “You need a sincere love for children,” Grenell liked to remind Moore. “Never give up on a child.”

Over the next few years, Moore got to observe other Black veterans at East Side High. She noticed that her mentors were firm and demanding, but also warm and encouraging. They approached each challenge in the classroom with a belief that all students were capable of learning—they never assumed students just weren’t motivated or sufficiently prepared to engage with demanding material. The teachers knew every student’s name, their dreams, and their interests; they maintained close relationships with the students’ families. Years later, Moore learned that Black teachers in the South—including many of her mentors—had played a key role in “seeding” the civil-rights movement by helping their students in Black, segregated schools develop pride in their intellect and a sense of collective responsibility.

Moore started teaching just as that generation of Black teachers in the South was approaching retirement, but she benefited from their direct coaching before they left. Since then, Moore has become one of the most decorated teachers in the country. She was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2001 and won the prestigious Milken Award. After 15 years of teaching in high schools, Moore became an English instructor at Mississippi Delta Community College, where since 2005 she’s been teaching high-school and college students. During our conversations in March of 2019, which have been edited for length and clarity, I asked Moore to reflect on some of the most important lessons she learned from her mentors in the Mississippi Delta.

Kristina Rizga: You have very strong beliefs about the need for teachers to learn how to pronounce their students’ names. Why do you think this is so important?

Renee Moore: Learning English is a very personal, intimate thing. We use language from the moment we are little. Math comes later, and it’s fine not to know it in class. Students will go to great lengths to hide from me what they don’t know. I have to break down that embarrassment, as I encourage them to stretch themselves and take risks. If I’m mispronouncing their name, it will reduce our trust when everything I do has to communicate: “I want you to feel safe and comfortable to speak in class, and talk to me about anything.”

Rizga: What other strategies do you employ to build strong relationships with your students?

Moore: Every year I get a new class. I ask my students to write a letter of introduction: “Tell me about yourself. What are your college or career plans, if you have any? Have you done any writing before in school or outside of school? What do you hope to get out of this class? What are some goals you have for yourself at this point?” I tell them that it won’t be graded—and that really matters, for several reasons. First, I am building relationships by getting to know them as human beings. Second, this letter becomes a helpful tool to diagnose where they are with their writing skills. And I always write an individual response to that letter. I’m not making any comments about the grammar or the sentence structure. I simply respond to what they talk about in the letter. “Oh, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I see you’re interested in nursing. My mother was a nurse …” I do that very intentionally at the beginning of the semester to signal: “I see you as a human being. I’m paying attention to what you say to me. You are a unique individual with skills and ideas that matter.”

That’s important, because a lot of students have told me that no one’s ever actually read what they wrote. What they mean by that is that their writing has been graded, but it’s never been read. As a result, they don’t think it matters what they say, as long as they get the grammar and organization correct. But the first thing we should be as writing teachers is readers of our students’ writing. You are an evaluator secondarily—but first and foremost, you’re an audience. Letting students know that they have ideas that are worth other people’s attention changes their entire way of looking at themselves and at the rest of the world.

Then, at the end of the semester, I give them the introduction letter back. And the final exam is an essay where they have to reflect on their portfolio: all of the written pieces they produced in the course of the semester. And I say: “Quote yourself from your introduction letter. Tell me what you said about yourself as a writer in the beginning of our class, and compare it to what you see now.” For many of them, it’s a big moment, because they’re used to measuring their progress in grades, but they’re not used to measuring it in terms of actual skills and knowledge. They're always stunned at how far they’ve come.

Rizga: How do you motivate reluctant learners?

Moore: Students who avoid reading things that seem long and complicated are depriving themselves of some very important information and skills. I want them to overcome their fear of a text.

A part of this task means finding readings that speak to your students. Last week, I had my high-school students read an article, “The Reason College Costs More Than You Think.” It didn’t resonate. I could tell by their lack of engagement and the quality of discussion. Then I brought in “Proficiency,” an essay by a college student who had high grades in high school, was a prolific writer, but failed her high-school graduation tests three times. They loved it. The reading addressed their fear of failure, and allowed me to tell them that I don’t think that those scores are a measure of their intelligence. It changed the entire energy of the class, and their engagement with work.

The other thing that helps students become strong learners is teaching them not to be afraid to just let their ideas flow. The students have been so used to having their grammar criticized that they over-censor themselves when they’re writing. So instead of just letting the ideas flow, they’re constantly stopping and trying to correct themselves. And every time you do that, you lose precious ideas. My job is to help them get past that hurdle, where they will just let themselves write a draft, and then feel that they have permission to play with their words. Once a student gets there, they realize they do have a lot to say, and the key to saying it well isn’t getting it right the first time. The key is revision and rewriting.

Rizga: What is your approach to teaching grammar?

Moore: Students need consistent instruction in grammar and usage, but they don’t need to spend a lot of time in class on drilling. I give my students grammar online, outside of the class. In class, I need them to focus on words, thoughts, and ideas, but I can’t do that if they’re worried about their grammar.

Rizga: You credit the Black teachers you had as a child in Detroit, and later your Black mentors in the Mississippi Delta, for some of the most important things you learned about teaching. What are some of these most essential lessons?

Moore: Our teachers were always inspiring us and communicating their belief in us. They never said, “If you go to college.” The message was always, “When you go to college.” It was always, “You can do it. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish.” It’s their attitude about teaching that I’ve always wanted to mimic, because that’s what inspired me the most as a student.

And the message was always, “You get educated for the benefit of the community and the race.” My educators, and later my teaching mentors in the South, were very clear that education wasn’t about getting a good job and going to college. The purpose of education was community uplift. Today we have wasted a generation, telling young people that the primary reason to pursue education is to get into a well-paying career. In rural or economically depressed areas like Delta, looking at education chiefly as a path to social mobility—rather than a path to full citizenship, one’s sense of agency and freedom—can actually depress achievement and increase hopelessness. Black youth have living proof that many of their parents and siblings couldn’t get a middle-class job with a college degree. As they watch their friends and family driving trucks or working in the stores, they wonder, Why get an education?

By attaching the dreams and aspirations of African American students to a higher good, their expectations are infused with a meaningful purpose. Being responsive to your community—rather than being driven by points, test scores, and college applications—provides internal motivation to really excel and learn, and to uplift others.

Rizga: What are some of the most consequential shifts you’ve seen in education in the past 30 years?

Moore: When I was in school, it was exciting. It was fun. It was wonderful. I remember in the sixth grade, we had to do a public presentation: reciting poems and historical documents. Then we had to answer questions, and the whole community would come to see what you had learned. We had a chance to express ourselves and participate in different types of activities. It was such a powerful motivator for us. Every Black child I’ve talked to who grew up in the South can talk about being part of a school play or a skit. Those kinds of activities meant a lot to children.

For a lot of the kids now, school is just drudgery from beginning to end—particularly schools that serve poor Black students. There’s no music curriculum, no arts curriculum, no vocational classes. The things they’re asked to read, the things they’re asked to study, the constant test preparation—it’s nothing that would stimulate you intellectually. I’m not saying school should always be Disneyland, but it should have some creative and intellectual appeal to it.

Rizga: What has helped you stay in teaching for so long, given that the U.S. lost more Black teachers than any other group between 2003 and 2012?

Moore: Whenever I feel anger or a sense of hopelessness coming over me, I like to think about Hopewell Elementary School—this lovely little elementary school about 20 miles from Cleveland. When I was awarded the Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2001, they had me there for a students’ reading event. The whole community came out. After the assembly was over, this group of older ladies, all retired Black teachers, came up to me—and they made a circle around me, like people do in Black churches. They congratulated me, because I was going to Washington, D.C., to receive the award. These women had taken up money among themselves, put it in a handkerchief, tied it, and handed it to me, as a way to celebrate that I was going to see the president—and represent Black people in a society that questions Black intelligence. I cried. They cried. It was the most touching thing.

I think about that day often. I am not the best or the brightest; I am a reflection of the accumulated wisdom these teachers passed on to me. All of these great teachers who had preceded me, who taught in segregated schools under horrible conditions, with no equal pay. They would never have gotten a chance to be the State Teacher. So I feel a great responsibility to represent them in anything I do—staying true to that heritage, that pedagogy that’s been passed down to me—and to be the connection between that past and the future.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.