Drescher: Duke grad plays central role in ‘Blackboard Wars’

Baye Cobb teaching geometry in her classroom.
Baye Cobb teaching geometry in her classroom. Courtesy of OWN TV

Baye Cobb, 22, grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Duke with a degree in public policy. She opted against the Wall Street path taken by many of her classmates. “I felt like I needed to pay it forward in some way,” she told me this week.

She applied to Teach For America, which places recent college graduates in some of America’s most challenging public schools for two years, and was accepted. She’s finishing up her first year teaching geometry and financial math at a high school that is considered one of New Orleans’ poorest and toughest.

Cobb knew it would be hard. What she didn’t know was that some of her most difficult moments would be captured on an Oprah Winfrey Network series for the world to see.

A crew from the network spent the fall semester at John McDonogh High School, where Cobb teaches, to produce a six-episode series that aired this spring called “Blackboard Wars.”

McDonogh is a charter school run by education maverick Steve Barr, the media-savvy co-founder of the Rock the Vote registration effort. With Barr and her principal on board, Cobb agreed to cooperate with “Blackboard Wars.”

She never figured she would become one of the show’s central characters. But her role as a first-year teacher in a difficult school who is less than two years older than some of her students made her a compelling player.

In a trailer to promote the series, the camera focuses on Cobb. She is frustrated and exhausted. As she struggles to keep her composure, she says, “I’m so overwhelmed.”

For good reason. Even an experienced teacher could feel overwhelmed at McDonogh. Cobb received six weeks of training before starting her job. Was she prepared? No, she answered decisively. “I don’t know how they could have prepared me for everything I’d encounter this year,” she said. “You just keep treading water. You figure it out.”

It’s a lot to figure out. So many of our ills, mixed together in one high school. Drugs. Homelessness. Teen pregnancy. Violence. In one episode, Cobb attempts to break up a fight in her classroom between two football players and gets punched squarely in the face.

That hurt. But maybe not as much as believing she had won some students’ trust, only to learn that she had not.

‘A horrible day’

The scene from the trailer? When she said she was overwhelmed? That came during what Cobb called “a horrible day.” She had built a relationship with a key student, a bright, motivated 16-year-old who wants to be a lawyer and is influential with her classmates. When the student has trouble grasping new material, she sometimes seethes with anger at Cobb.

“You suck,” the student said to Cobb during class. “You don’t know how to do what you’re trying to do. You ain’t teaching me nothing.”

That exchange wasn’t on camera. But another one was. Cobb, who served as the cheerleading coach, was beckoned to school by the cheerleaders on a Saturday after they missed their ride to their football game. Cobb went to the school but lost her temper and lashed out at the students.

Learning together

That led to a stinging post on an education blog and other online comments critical of how she handled the situation. A photo caption with the blog post said, “Hello class, welcome your new diva, er, I mean teacher: Baye Cobb.”

“It was hard to watch,” Cobb said of that episode. “Did I handle it the best? No. I wish I could do it over again and be calm and rational. I reacted emotionally, and that’s not something I’m proud of.”

Cobb is proud of her students. She has learned a lot; they’ve learned a lot. The principal considers her a success. When you set aside the drama and the riveting TV, her students showed strong growth on end-of-course tests. “I am blindly driven for their achievement,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of anything than their success.”