Minority Students Dream to Teach

Jan 19, 2015

Sarai Tillinghast is encouraging minority students to become teachers in Des Moines. She shares moments from her own meaningful career to convince them to join the ranks. Here's the story of the project known as Dream to Teach.

Sarai Tillinghast with Dream to Teach students San San Te and Josiah McGhee.
Credit Rob Dillard

When she was growing up in a small town in Louisiana, Sarai Tillinghast dreamed of becoming a lawyer. That began to change when she volunteered to tutor grade school students.

“I actually taught a young girl to read and she is now a sophomore in college," she says. "Looking back on it, oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. She was in first grade and she was behind, and I went over and I volunteered, and I taught her how to read over the course of that school year.”

Tillinghast, who is African-American, coordinates the Dream to Teach program in the Des Moines Public School District. The minority student population in Iowa’s capital city is now more than 50 percent of the overall enrollment. And yet, only six percent of its teachers represent minority groups.  Tillinghast is in the early days of striving to improve that number.

“I think that students who show promise are not encouraged to become teachers," she says. "When I was a child it was always, 'Oh, you’re so smart, you’re such a hard worker, when you grow up you’re certainly going to what, be a doctor, a lawyer.' Later on they started saying, 'Oh, maybe you can be an engineer or work with computers.'”

Tillinghast says teachers themselves deliver the message to bright, ambitious students of color the profession does not pay well. Even now, she says, when she goes home and tells her former teachers she became one, they voice surprise. Eighth-grader Josiah McGhee hesitated when approached with the idea of joining Dream to Teach.

“At first I was like, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be a teacher," he says. "But my mom convinced me to give it a try, and now I actually am thinking about becoming one.”

In order to keep Josiah on track to achieve his goal of becoming a teacher, he will be watched over by mentors, who will steadily check in to see about his grades and behavior. He’ll go on field trips to the education departments of colleges and universities. He’ll receive help in applying for scholarships and other financial aid packages. He’ll have role models, such as Tillinghast, to follow.

“If you’re in a classroom, or you’re in a school building and the only person you see who looks like you is the janitor, well then subconsciously you might get the feeling that the only thing I can do is be a janitor," she says. "We don’t want our students to think that. We want them to know you can be a teacher, you can be an administrator.”

This message has already gotten through to Josiah. He says he understands the importance of seeing more people who look like him at the front of the classroom.

“A lot of us want to be basketball players, and you know why," he asks. "Because we see a lot of black basketball players, so we think, oh yes, I can do this because the rest of our race is doing it. I think if we had more black teachers, then maybe more black kids will want to be teachers.”

Dream to Teach is in its first year in Des Moines, so it will be awhile before anyone knows if it was a hit in bringing more minority teachers to the city’s public schools. For now, Tillinghast, who until recently was a classroom math and science teacher, says she’ll serve as a cheerleader for the teaching profession.

“I love math, I bring my enthusiasm to the classroom, I love science," she says. If I can share that and spread that, it just makes my life worthwhile.”

Tillinghast says she’ll talk with the Dream to Teach kids about her personal ah-hah moments from a life in teaching, those times when a struggling student aces a test or a former pupil returns to say thanks. Those are her strongest arguments for becoming a teacher.