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Ama Nyamekye, Executive Director, Educators for Excellence Los Angeles
Last year, this series profiled Educators for Excellence founders Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, who launched Educators for Excellence in New York City and state to engage teachers in education policy issues and provide a platform for teacher voices to be heard by policymakers and the media--with the ultimate goal of elevating the profession and ensuring that teacher expertise informs smart education policy choices.
Late last year Educators for Excellence expanded to Los Angeles, under the leadership of Ama Nyamekye. In its first several months in operation, E4E Los Angeles has built a membership base of more than 450 teachers and helped to author an amicus brief urging California courts to protect schools from seniority-based layoffs. Prior to joining E4E, Nyamekye, 31, began her career at an education nonprofit serving incarcerated young men and women and taught English in the New York City Public Schools through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. She has also worked for a global communications firm and consulted with a variety of education reform organizations. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Papua New Guinea, North Carolina, California, and Nevada, Nyamekye holds a bachelor's in Fine Arts from Emerson University and master's degrees from Pace and Columbia Universities. She currently lives in Los Angeles and is expecting a baby girl this summer.
You're the Executive Director of Educators for Excellence Los Angeles; What does that actually mean you do on a day -to-day basis?
E4E is a teacher-led organization that seeks to elevate the voices of educators in the policy decisions that affect our classrooms and careers. As a result, I spend at least two days a week at schools, meeting with teachers and watching their work in action, learning from their perspectives. This also keeps me grounded during my meetings with policymakers, district leaders, community-based organizations and others influencing reform. I'm an education news junkie, which is pretty essential to my work, so I also keep up with headlines, research and trends.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in that work?
We have a very polarizing dynamic in public education. For instance, there are loud voices that position student test data as this scourge on public education, while voices on the opposite end of the spectrum talk about test data as a panacea for reform. Most teachers are in the Rational Middle and have managed to navigate this contentious debate by closing their classroom doors and doing the best they can for their students. My job is to inspire these teachers to open their doors, get informed, get connected with like-minded peers and take action to raise their voices and cut through the rhetoric that prevents us from making progress.
How did you come to work in education?
Ten years ago, I was a college student majoring in creative writing with every intention of being a poor poet. My senior year, I volunteered to teach a poetry workshop in a women's prison. I realized that I loved the art of teaching poetry more than I loved writing poetry. That effectively ended my career as a poor poet and began my career as a poor public school teacher. Teaching is incredibly creative and rigorous.
What motivates you?
George Norman Moody II. He was the student who challenged me the most. I remember thinking, "If I can motivate George to excel, I'll be a better teacher for all my students." George was the boy who falls through the cracks of our achievement gap. He was full of raw talent but underperforming. George, and kids like him, keep me going every day, but they also keep me up at night.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in public education today?
Adults need to be as courageous as our students. As a teacher, I asked my English Language Learners to memorize and recite Shakespearean sonnets, to walk through rival gang territory to get to my class on time, to be the first person in their family to go away to college. Yet, we adults often don't exercise the kind of courage we ask of our students. If we want our kids to make education their number one priority, we must make students the number one priority of public education.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I hope to do my part to close the education access and achievement gap in California.
Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
I admire those renegade teachers in California that design and launch their own pilot schools. I also admire my partner, Joan, who opened a public school in the poorest congressional district in America where the walls were lined with book cases and the kids traveled abroad for the summer.