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The Last Word: Tc Student Voices

Protecting and Defending Public Schools, to the Best of My Ability     


Growing up in North Carolina, I was devastated that, because I had been born in South Africa, I could never become President of the United States.

"I have decided to take ownership for making public schools places of hope and liberation, and for protecting future teachers."
—Chelsey Saunders, a third-year Ph.D. student in TC’s program in Education Leadership, is President of the Teachers College Student Senate.

I became a teacher, like my parents, who had fought apartheid and taught me about awareness, kindness and service. Now I have returned to the idea of being President — not really doing so, but the sense of responsibility the role represents.

My path to teaching was eased by scholarships and a first job at a flagship North Carolina high school that had hosted Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama. Then the state froze teacher pay, even as I scraped together $2,500 for my National Board Certification. I struggled to model drive and innovation as state tests overwhelmed my students’ creativity and love of learning.  

As North Carolina became “First in Teacher Flight,” I flew to Teachers College to find my bearings. Back home, North Carolina slashed school spending by more than any other state. The legislature eliminated the program that funded me and other top high school graduates to become culturally relevant and politically aware teachers in the state. 

These measures, which reflect our nation’s embrace of privatization as a universal panacea, changed my plans. Now a Ph.D. student in TC’s Education Leadership program, I believe even more strongly that public schools — even those given an “F” — remain our best instrument to diagnose society’s failings. I have decided to take ownership for making public schools places of hope and liberation, and for protecting future teachers who, in my state, will earn less in their first year than the cost of a TC master’s degree.

As President of TC’s Student Senate, I try to make a difference in my present life and learn from the nation’s best teachers and policy makers. I may work in policy in the future, but I will always be a teacher. When I return to North Carolina, whether in a school, a business, or legislative building, I will teach leaders, knowing one might be the next President of the United States.   

Chelsey Saunders

Published Tuesday, Jul 12, 2016

Future Leaders Belt
Illustration: Paul Vismara
Chelsea Saunders