2020 Educator of Excellence: Omolola Ajayi
As a native Memphian and New Memphis Embark graduate, Omolola Ajayi knew she loved her city. But her true passion bubbled to the surface when she began teaching, though she’s honest that it wasn’t her original plan for a career.
“Long story short, a classmate of mine was doing some recruiting for a charter school and said, ‘you know, you'd be a great teacher!', Ajayi explains. "It was never something that was in the plan; I was a religious studies major [at Rhodes College]. But I needed a job so I said why not, let's go teach."
“Teaching here in this city, being a native loving the city I'm in, I want to give that to the children I'm interacting with on a daily basis. I want them to love the city and realize that they don't have to dream about a future somewhere else.”
Ajayi did more than begin a new profession with her decision; she found her passion. “So I guess the question is why did I stay a teacher? The answer is because I found such a passion for education. And a passion for educating our children [in Memphis]. It is so fulfilling to watch children grow and then be a part of their developmental process. To be a part of their identify formation process. That's a big deal for me. Education in my own life has helped me to form who I am, to become more knowledgeable of my context, my position and society in general. I've remained a teacher because education is my activism. It is the way that I give back. If this is the way I live, breathe, and eat. Then I've pursued it and made sure I can be the best I can possibly be at it.”
As a 5th grade ELA/Social Studies; K-6 ELA Content Lead at S.T.A.R. Academy Charter School, she’s very aware of setting her scholars up for success — not just academically, but as individuals. She recalls one particular student’s growth after she had a tough conversation with him, and how it impacted her teaching style from then on out.
A group of boys were antagonizing a young girl, but Ajayi was not letting that fly. “We had the conversation, a heart to heart,” she says. “It was honest, and it was transparent. In that conversation, I had an opportunity to talk to my young men about being young men. And not about being young men the way they may see it on TV, but being young men of stature, character and standards — explaining what that looks like in this day and age, specifically as black young men. I wasn't sure if he heard me. But a couple weeks later we had an incident and I was floored. The way he stood up, and took control in front of his peers — which is hard to do especially for elementary age school kids. Despite being in front of his classmates, he took control and spoke to his male classmates and told them that this was not ok. So he was listening. In that moment, I remember telling my co-teacher, that right there was beautiful. I wasn't just teaching him something attached to a standard, but teaching this young man about life. I'm able to influence the character development of this particular student and that gave me so much joy. It made me make the decision to always have authentic conversations around character and what that looks like with my children.”
“It helped me to realize it's important to for them to realize they're people not just students. It is part of their identity and a part of who they are. I've found that it helps them own the learning process way more. I don't just teach a standard, content, or a skill. I teach character in addition to those things. Because if I don't teach you how to hold yourself up or how to persevere, how can I expect you to come into the classroom and meet that standard? I have to have that character conversation with you and meet you where you are as a person first, then I can approach you as a student.”