The Antoines are a family of educators. Tara Antoine is in her 14th year of teaching and is a fifth grade English Language Arts teacher at Martin Behrman Charter School, an Algiers Charter School. Her children, Cortnee, Colby, and Carl, as well as her daughter-in-law, Ashley, are also all teachers.
Cortnee Antoine White is in her first year of teaching; she is a fifth grade math teacher at Behrman. Colby is in her second year as a third grade math teacher at Berhman. Carl has been teaching for eight years and is an eighth grade math teacher at 42 Charter School. His wife, Ashley Johnson-Antoine, is also in her eighth year, and teaches eighth grade ELA at 42. Their daughter attends Behrman, where she is taught by both Tara and Cortnee.
This winter, we spoke to the Antoines about their experience as educators in New Orleans. Since the COVID-19 crisis hit, of course, many aspects of their work have changed. In late April, we checked in with Tara Antoine about teaching in this moment; we share her reflections at the close of this piece.
Why did you become a teacher?
Tara: I started as a paraprofessional in Jefferson Parish back in 1993. I really loved working with the children. I wanted to have an impact and be a role model. I wanted to make sure they were nurtured. Students need a person who is in their corner, no matter what.
Cortnee: I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do, but I started working as a substitute at Martin Behrman. I saw every grade level and started building relationships with the kids. I loved making an impact in their lives, and that’s what motivated me to become a teacher. A lot of the kids have a lot going on, so they look to me as a role model and a positive force in their lives.
Colby: I also didn’t know what I wanted to be in life. I knew I cared about writing, and I was good at it, so I got an English degree. Since my mom was a teacher, I interned at her school. I worked with her three days a week and another teacher, Ms. Epps, two days a week. It completely changed my outlook about what I desired out of life. This was something I could do. It was the missing puzzle piece for me.
Carl: The whole reason I’m in education is to teach kids that look like me. The 7th Ward, where I teach now, has a high poverty rate, and some of our kids are dealing with some of the most difficult situations I’ve seen at any school. So, I want to provide the opportunity for kids to see that education can provide a way out of the situations they may see every day.
Ashley: Initially, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was an English major, and I knew I wanted to do something with writing and reading in some capacity. I became a paraprofessional in 2007, and I originally connected to the idea of teaching because of the ability to have relationships with the children and the great impact it can have. I wanted to teach students academics, but also to teach them about themselves.
What is the best part of being an educator?
Cortnee: It’s seeing your children grow. It’s powerful for me to build the relationships, and then see them start to learn little by little.
Tara: It’s about the relationships. It’s seeing that child in that room the first day—they’re unsure and scared, and not sure what to expect of you. Then, as weeks progress, you see those lightbulbs come on. They’re not afraid to go out and answer questions, to try even if they aren’t sure, because they can say to themselves, “Ms. Antoine is there to catch me when I fall.” So it’s all about the relationships and seeing those kids grow. You have to be everything for them for those few hours when they’re with you. It’s sure not about the pay. It’s about the relationships.
Ashley: It’s building relationships with kids and then seeing that impact in their academics. You have to be a real advocate.
Carl: I agree with everyone else. It’s about the relationships. I set a very high standard. I know what my students will face when they leave the classroom. So I teach them about themselves as much as possible, and use education as a way to empower them beyond our room. I give them the information that can be used outside our room—emotionally, academically, and behaviorally.
Tara, how did you feel when your children became educators?
Tara: I felt proud. It makes me feel as though, even though I wasn’t aware of it, my children were watching me and watching what I did. When I went back to school, they were little. Carl was in 2nd grade and Colby and Cortnee were babies. I was determined to make a better life for myself and my children. Now, it makes me feel like we are leaving a legacy. They are following in my footsteps while forging their own path. They’re making their own impact.
What else should we know?
Carl: Education is definitely a passion that lives within you. You have to do it with intention and consistency. We need to be building kids up academically, behaviorally, emotionally and holistically. Even if they’re only with us for seven hours a day, after school, they face situations that I, as an adult, don’t have to deal with. So, we want to give them those resources, beyond academics—we want to give them emotional resources. We want to help them have a growth mindset and help them know what to do when faced with an adverse situation, beyond the statistics of their area.
Ashley: Our school provides certain wraparound services that are important. We provide tools they need to move in a world where they are experiencing so much trauma. We try to influence them as emotional and spiritual beings as well. I do meditation in my class and help them work through trauma they don’t know how to heal from. It’s not all about scores; it’s about putting the child at the center.
• • •
Tara, we last spoke with you and your family this winter. Now that schools have been closed due to COVID-19, how has your work as a teacher changed? How are you feeling?
First and foremost, I am feeling overwhelmed, because I am not able to do what I am used to doing with my students. I don’t get to see my babies. Their parents are trying to do their best, but they are not teachers, and they have their own jobs. Our school year has ended so abruptly. We never got to do the end-of-year things we were working so long for, and that is a let-down for students.
Virtual teaching and learning is just not the same as being physically together every day. My children are overwhelmed, too. And their routine has been shattered. There is no structure, no schedule. They don’t have PE, they don’t have their usual classes. I’m contacting students and parents by phone and email, and this COVID-19 is real. They’ve got relatives in the hospital, they have lost family members.
But, we had our first ELA meeting over Zoom last week. It was not the full class, but it felt so good to see those faces, to see the children in their own environments. They were literally waiting and ready and I was so excited to see them. We talked about how we were doing and feeling and then we got right into the lesson. I held the same expectations I always have. They know I want them to be ready with their materials, their literature, and their questions.
And they realized they had to get it together, just like in the classroom. I was still Ms. Antoine, their teacher. I said, “what would we be doing at this time in room 205 during our lesson?” and they were raising their hands, eager to tell me.
This is a challenging time to be an educator. But I am determined—I am even more determined than ever. I love what I do. I love this work, and I get to know these children and become a positive force in their lives. I am a constant, and they know that, no matter what, “Ms. Antoine’s got my back.”
We are glad to have devoted educators like the Antoines working with our city’s children, during this crisis and always. They remind us of the importance of strong relationships in teaching, and of supporting the whole child in the classroom. Their thoughtfulness and commitment to education are catalysts for meaningful change in the lives of children.
If you are looking to start a career in education in New Orleans, train to be a teacher, or continue your work as an educator in our city, check out www.TeachNewOrleans.net.