But after earning a degree in theater arts, Reed returned home to Johnstown and couldn’t find work in her chosen profession. Thus began a career that now finds her teaching creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, after stops at a preschool in her hometown and two high schools in New York City.
“I feel like it’s a calling now,” says the Pittsburgh teacher and author, who will participate Thu., July 9 in a virtual event sponsored by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures to promote her new memoir Why Did I Get a B? (Atria). “But this was not something, from a young age, I was going to do. In fact, it was the opposite. I didn’t want to be a teacher.”
And, of course, there are students. Most are kids who enjoy, or at least tolerate, being in a classroom. But every teacher’s biggest fear is realized in Paulie, a student at a theater-arts themed public school in Brooklyn. He not only insults Reed and every other teacher in the school and threatens students, but continues his behavior due to an administrator who prefers to be non-confrontational.
Typical was an incident in which Paulie returns to Reed’s classroom after misbehaving, offers an apology and then, as soon as the administrator leaves, accosts another student. Because Reed was paid relatively well, she stayed at the school, despite students like Paulie who made her life difficult.
“We ask so much of teachers and then we give them almost no financial support to help them do this immense work we’re asking of them,” Reed says. “It’s deeply unfair. I think it’s very telling in my book that the schools I liked the most paid me the least. The school that paid me the most was the most difficult to be there. It turned into almost hazard pay. If you want people to stay and be teachers, you’ve got to do better than that.”
Why Did I Get a B? was written long before the recent nationwide protests being held due to the deaths of Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. But Reed addresses race in the chapter, “Somewhat More Free.” At one school where Reed taught, the student body was 95% Black, with Latino students comprising the rest of the school. It was a “monoculture school run by a diverse faculty,” Reed writes. “I saw that my skin color provided me with some protections that my students did not enjoy.”
Reed says it’s incumbent upon white teachers to “start embracing the idea we are going to teach slightly out of our comfort zone if we really want to have meaningful conversations about race. Conversations have to happen among White people, and not just expecting Black people to teach the rest of us about their history. That’s not fair, that’s asking too much, and it is our collective national history. It’s not separated from me just because I didn’t grow up knowing it.”
Shannon Reed Virtual Event: Why Did I Get a B? 6 p.m., Thu., July 9. Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. Free, with registration. pittsburghlectures.org