Riley Campbell isn’t one of those aspiring educators who always dreamed of leading her own classroom or who played school with her friends growing up.
For a while, she actually thought she might go into the hospitality industry — and pursued a related career and technical education (CTE) pathway at her high school.
But a series of unexpected events led her to reconsider her plans.
In 10th grade, for some extra cash, Campbell signed up to tutor elementary school students through a literacy program in her hometown of Washington, D.C. The program later gave her an opportunity to co-author and publish her first children’s book at age 16.
Then, during her senior year, Campbell enrolled in some college education courses.
Those dual enrollment classes sealed the deal: Campbell would become a teacher.
Campbell now attends American University, where she participates in the Teaching Fellows program, which awarded her a full scholarship and offers a range of resources and support to aspiring educators, such as teacher coaching.
Now a college junior, she hasn’t looked back. Every step of the way has provided her with further validation that she belongs in education — and that the field needs her perspective, her compassion and her student-centered approach.
In our Future Teacher series, we feature individuals in teacher preparation programs who will soon be heading into classrooms of their own, to understand what drew them to this field and what motivates them to stay, at a time when many of their peers are choosing other career paths and professions. This month, we’re featuring Riley Campbell.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: What is your earliest memory of a teacher?
Riley Campbell: I think my earliest memory is of my first grade teacher. She was really open to letting students bring their own experiences into the classroom. That’s such a big concept for first grade. One of my classmates had written and published a book as a first grader — with the help of his parents, obviously — and she allowed him to read his story to the class. That got us really excited about reading. That was my first introduction to really liking reading.
When did you realize you wanted to become a teacher yourself?
It’s a bit of a story. So I went to Ballou High School, which is here in Washington, D.C., in Ward 8. Ballou High School and a bunch of other high schools in D.C. have a reading program called Reach Incorporated. It is an afterschool program where high school students are hired and trained to tutor elementary school students to try to improve their reading scores. I worked with Reach for a long time, but I didn’t really have a desire to be an educator. I just liked the money.
But it was honestly that program that inspired me to think, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ During my first year, it was only me and one other tutor, and at first we worked with students one-on-one. But by the end of the year, the two of us were tutoring an entire class of students, and I was able to manage it quite well. That’s where I kind of had an inkling of, like, ‘This might be something that I can go into.’
Reach also has a summer program where students choose a literacy project to work on and present at the end of the summer. Two years in a row, I chose to do a book project. So I’m a published author of two children’s books, and it was that experience of writing the children’s books that made me go from, ‘This may be something that I can possibly do,’ to, ‘This is something I really want to do.’
Still, I wasn’t exactly sure. You hear that teachers don’t get paid a lot, and I wasn’t sure if I had a passion for education, or if I just liked working with children.
Then, in my senior year, I started dual enrollment courses at American University, and I absolutely fell in love. I took one course called Schools and Society and another called Social Justice in Urban Education. I can’t even explain how enlightened I felt taking those classes. It kind of just tied together my experience as a tutor and my experience as a dual enrollment high school and college student — and showed me a side to education that I hadn’t seen before.
I think that it was a combination of those experiences that really made me feel, by the time I finished my dual enrollment program, that this was definitely what I wanted to do, that education is my passion. I can’t say it was one particular thing, but just a series of events that pushed me into this pathway.
Tell me about the two books that you published.
The first book is called “Man Up!” and I’m a co-author with two other students, plus we had an illustrator. I was 16 years old when this book came out. We wrote it during the summer of 2019, when I was transitioning from 10th grade to 11th grade. Me and my co-authors really wanted to have a book that was about social justice, especially with the current political climate.
We wrote this book for children, particularly little boys in elementary school, to let them know that their feelings and emotions are valid and there’s nothing wrong with expressing them. We also wanted the book to be reflective of our city, so the entire story is set in D.C. We have references to landmarks in the city like a popular baseball field.
The next summer, which was the year COVID hit, we were in the program again and wanted to publish a second book. We followed the same process — collaborating to write our story — but through Zoom, which was pretty hard.
The second book, “Diarou’s Not So Different,” was inspired by one of my co-authors, Diarou. (I worked with different co-authors for each book.) She was a newcomer to Reach, and she is from Guinea, in Africa, and she’s one of the sweetest people ever. We wrote the story based on her experience as an immigrant — coming to a new country, joining a new school, struggling to connect with people and then finding community through language. We published that one in November 2020.
I loved writing stories for children about finding themselves and being who they are and expressing themselves in the way they feel most comfortable.
You’re also part of the Teaching Fellows program at American University, right? Tell me about that.
Yes. So one of the most amazing things about it is that we are guaranteed a job at D.C. Public Schools after we graduate. Once I get my degree, knowing that I have my job secured when I graduate takes a total weight off my shoulders.
It’s also great because as fellows, we will still have contact with the faculty that run the fellowship program — the same people that we’ve been building relationships with over four years will mentor us for our first five years after graduation. They will check in on us, and that’s a guarantee. I really appreciate that because I’m a little scared to be a first-year teacher.
The fellowship is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I genuinely mean that. I love the support from the faculty and staff at AU that we get. They are very diligent about making sure that we have access to opportunities. Whatever we need, they make sure that we can get it. Transportation is not a problem, access is not a problem.
The leaders are constantly checking in on us. The best word to describe the fellowship is “support.” They literally do everything in their power to make sure that we have as much support as possible.
Why do you want to become a teacher?
I want to reignite the fire — or ignite the fire, for some people — of education. If students find joy in learning at a very young age, then they’ll find joy in learning when they’re older and then we can continue the cycle of learning.
Was your own experience in school largely positive or largely negative, and how does that inform your approach to teaching?
I had a couple of negative experiences with teachers, but even those experiences helped to inform my decisions as an educator now, because I saw what I didn’t want my own students to experience. For example, my fourth grade teacher would single people out, she would yell, she literally split the classroom in half — dividing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students. Looking back, I know I definitely do not want to be like her. I believe in restorative teaching practices.
But overall, I would say I had a quite positive experience, especially in high school because a lot of people were rooting for me. I was valedictorian when I graduated. I had straight A’s my entire high school career.
I had one teacher, Ms. Graham, who is the sweetest lady on earth, and she really made me feel like I belonged. And she was a new teacher. I didn’t know it until after I had already felt attached to her, but it was her first year teaching. When I look back at how confident she seemed her first year teaching, I’m like, ‘Wow, I can be that teacher, and the students wouldn’t even know [it’s my first year].’
What gives you hope about your future career?
The generation behind me.
Last semester I was working in a fifth grade classroom a few times a week for my service learning class, and it was my first time working with an older group of [elementary] students. They reminded me of myself when I was a kid. Almost every single student in that class was excited to learn, and even the students who weren’t excited were open to having conversations about why. I could still connect with them, because of some of the teaching approaches I’ve learned at American University.
A lot of people are complaining about students today, but I’m seeing the exact opposite — kids who are brilliant and want to learn. You just have to pique their interest.
What gives you pause or worries you about being a teacher?
One thing is the pay. I’m aware of how much I’ll be getting paid, but that doesn’t mean that the salary that teachers are making is OK. And I’m really lucky because teachers in D.C. get paid more than [most] teachers across the U.S.
I actually started out with a different teacher in my serving learning class than I ended with, because not even a week into me working with her, the first teacher had quit. Teachers are being overworked and underappreciated. A lot of them are stressed out and leaving the field.
I’m just really scared that at some point there are not going to be enough teachers to meet the demands of students and that education is going to worsen. I really hope that it doesn’t get to that point.
Why does the field need you right now?
You can never have enough teachers, and having a diverse teacher workforce is so important because students are so very diverse. Even though my particular experience may not be unique, it’s an experience that maybe one student — or even one other teacher — has never heard before. And having diverse perspectives in as many spaces as possible is important to fostering a culturally responsive education and a strong classroom community.