Chapel Hill: Opinion

Ethan Tillman: Our children need us

My family has always taken great pride in the pursuit of education.

My late grandfather was forced to leave high school after the ninth grade to work on his family farm. And so, when it came time for his own kids to go to school, he was adamant. Each of his children would graduate from high school, he vowed. Each would go on to pursue higher education. A generation later, I am a product of this legacy – successful high school student, college graduate, and now, eighth-grade teacher in the state that raised me.

Halfway through my second year in the classroom, I can’t help but be struck by my grandfather’s foresight. Through education, I’ve had a world of choice opened up to me. Now, as an educator, I get the chance to shape the world I want to see and to help my students do the same.

Because of what happened in the generation before me, I grew up with a degree of privilege that separates me from the realities my students face day-to-day. As a kid, I never had to come to school with an empty stomach. I never came to class on Monday after hearing gunshots over the weekend. Not once did I carry an overnight bag to homeroom in case the house I left that morning was not the same one I would return to when school was dismissed. Daily, I see how these tremendous personal challenges make learning more difficult and must also recognize the limits of my own perspective when it comes to deeply understanding them.

And yet, these differences aside, there’s much we share. My kids look to me not just to teach them how to analyze a passage or uncover its theme, but as an example of a responsible, loving, professional black man. Nationally, just 2 percent of teachers are black men. That means that, for most of my mostly African-American students, I’m the only African-American male teacher they’ll ever have.

Great teachers come from all backgrounds but I know that my presence means something special to my kids. Their faces light up when they look to the sidelines of a rec league basketball games and see me there. They rush to the windows of the buses on Friday afternoon to wish me a good weekend. They linger behind in my classroom long after classes switch. They challenge me with misbehavior to feel the comforting familiarity of my consistently high expectations. They ask about my family, and my upbringing, as they seek to know who I am and why they matter so much to me.

With all the challenges facing our state and our nation, we know that great educators will play a critical role – just as they did in the story of my family. They’ll come from all kinds of experiences – from fresh-faced college graduates like I was to, career changers looking to make an impact on our shared future. Some will have to bridge economic divides with their students, like I do with mine. Others will need to seek inter-racial understanding. Others still will teach children whose circumstances directly reflect their own. All will determine the legacy our generation leaves for the next.

Our children need us. Every day, I’m proud to stand as a role model to whom my students can relate – to challenge them to work harder, to provide structure to inspire them to dream beyond the limitations of their circumstances. I have made it my daily mission to love on my kids as much as possible and to give my full self to this work and I find my own inspiration in my colleagues and predecessors who’ve done the same.

Let’s step up to give our children the love and support they so desperately deserve. Let’s build a world in which students see the beauty and pride in their communities and identities. Let’s challenge ourselves as we challenge them. If my kids are any indicator, they certainly won’t let us down.

Ethan Tillman is a 2013 Teach For America corps member and sixth grade teacher at Rochelle Middle School in Lenoir County. Ethan is originally from Waxhaw, N.C., and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. To apply to teach, visit