GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ONCE SAID, “To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching.”
That is an intimidating goal to live up to, yet millions of teachers step into their classrooms every day with some semblance of that goal in mind.
There has long been a common theme of community service here at Memphis Law. That extends to some of our current students, several of whom served as teachers before arriving at law school. These Memphis Law students felt the call to teach others before eventually returning to the classroom to once again become students themselves. The stories of their journeys from teachers to law students are unique and varied. But all share common themes of service and dedication. These themes will likely carry over into their pending legal careers as they wrap up law school to become advocates for their various communities and causes.
These are their stories. We hope they’ll once again serve as teachers in this article and help the reader learn something new.
ANTHONY BRIDGEFORTH (3L) - Luxora/Rivercrest Elementary | Southern Mississippi County School District
For 10 years, Anthony Bridgeforth taught elementary school in the Southern Mississippi
County School District at Luxora Elementary School in Luxora, Ark. He progressed through
almost every grade level and taught each subject at some grade levels,
particularly mathematics in the upper grades. But being a teacher wasn’t where he originally thought he’d end up.
Though he had publicly professed to always wanting to be an attorney, going so far as to enroll and study at California State University, Los Angeles as a pre-law student, he had wanted to be an actor for as long as he could remember.
“By the time I was 16, I had an acting agent,” Bridgeforth said. “Though I was accepted to Cal State University, officially pursuing the study of law, I was really going to Los Angeles to become a movie star.”
Aside from his dream of being an actor taking him further from his stated legal path, several of his pre-law professors’ attitudes and actions turned him off of the idea of further legal study as well. He was a paid actor with an agent by his second year in L.A., and it was on the set of one of these projects that he had the revelation that would set him on his path back to Memphis and the Mid-South, and ultimately to teaching and on to law school.
“I realized that this was an actor’s life: playing a role written by someone else and eating from the food truck between scenes,” Bridgeforth said. “I understood that even though acting was fun, actors were effectively puppets carrying out the vision of the writers. I desired to do something that I felt was more meaningful. I didn’t want to be the person pretending to be someone interesting and meaningful. I wanted to be the meaningful person.”
He moved to Memphis to be closer to his parents and transferred to the University of Memphis, where he eventually graduated with a degree in economics, though he wasn’t really interested in pursuing a career in that field either.
Like many recent graduates, he bounced around between a few different jobs, with each one bringing him back to his original dilemma of not wanting to work on other people’s important projects and transactions, but rather to perform meaningful work in his own right.
“I returned to working at Danver’s, the fast-food restaurant I worked at during undergrad, and began to think about my career choices,” Bridgeforth said. “I realized that teaching was meaningful, challenging, creative and it had the perfect work schedule. Teaching gave me a salary I could support myself with, and the financial freedom to leave my parent’s house. It had everything I wanted at the time.
“Consequently, I returned to the University of Memphis and graduated with a master’s degree in teaching.” Bridgeforth was soon hired by Luxora Elementary at a time when only 30% of their students were proficient in reading and math at their grade level. He was quickly chosen to serve on the school leadership team and was sent to the Arkansas Leadership Academy, where he gained the reputation of being someone who could get the hard things done. Not long after, Bridgeforth and Luxora found themselves in the enviable but outlying position of being an overwhelming success among their struggling peers. The school was composed of mostly minority students, but now more than 80% of them were proficient in reading and more than 90% were proficient in mathematics. It was an undeniable success.
It was here, in the latter years of his teaching tenure with Luxora, that he first became an advocate. It began with his leadership and insightful questioning of the Arkansas Insurance Department regarding the raising of teacher’s insurance rates, while all other state employee rates remained the same. He attended meetings, spoke up on behalf of other teachers and pressed representatives on the reasoning behind the increases. Media attention soon followed, and the state legislature eventually brought the rates back down. He was offered a position with the teacher’s union but ultimately declined.
The next year he was faced with another test and opportunity for advocacy. Stumbling upon a newspaper article regarding a 60 year-old teacher that was fired and headed to trial for alleged child abuse for restraining a special education student after he had a fit, he took it upon himself to lobby the teacher’s union for her to receive representation. Ultimately, he spread the word about her situation and garnered support for her. At trial, the court found her not guilty.
A common thread was beginning to reveal itself in Bridgeforth’s actions. Advocacy and representation were naturally coming to the forefront.
A third and final instance in his 10th year of teaching may have been the most convincing and important to setting him on his path to law school.
He was teaching sixth-grade math at the time and, in addition to the instances of teen pregnancy he was seeing in nearby middle and high school classes, the sixth graders he taught were beginning to have problems with sexual occurrences and exhibited a lack of knowledge surrounding the issues. Bridgeforth took it upon himself to help educate and protect his students.
“I had a conversation with the students in my math classes,” he said. “I warned them about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual predators and teenage pregnancy. I allowed them to ask questions.”
Unfortunately, his diligence and care were not rewarded.
“Ten percent of parents of my 100 students wrote letters to the newly appointed superintendent. The superintendent along with the school board terminated me.”
Subsequently, he sued the school district.
As his own attorney searched for wrongful termination and breach of contract theories, he took it upon himself to research the case. Essentially, his research showed that a student in Arkansas public schools could go through middle school and high school and never receive any sex education classes, or at best, receive limited sex education instruction, such as “abstinence only” education.
At the preliminary hearing, the judge dismissed all of his attorney’s theories. However, when his attorney began to argue about the research Bridgeforth had done on his own, the judge inquired about learning more, but ultimately dismissed his suit with prejudice. Rather than have his attorney file an appeal, Bridgeforth once again took it upon himself.
“After looking for an attorney interested in fighting for the sex education rights of students, to no avail, I realized that it was my arguments that were persuasive,” he said. “My arguments moved the court. My research found the answers. I was the lawyer. With this epiphany, I sued the State of Arkansas and applied to law school.”
At trial, he defeated the assistant attorney general’s motion to dismiss and was ultimately required to seek alternative dispute resolution. Things ended with the court allowing Bridgeforth to write an amended complaint stating why he had personally suffered an injury due to the Arkansas law and holding that he was barely or not affected by the Arkansas law regarding the teaching of sex education. The court dismissed the case without prejudice. Consequently, he could now bring the issue at a later date.
He had just wrapped up his second year of law school.
“Teaching helped me learn how to deal with difficult people and to be calm despite someone’s attempts to be adversarial. I learned how to care for other people,” Bridgeforth said. “I learned how to meet people where they are and help them get to where they need to be. Teaching taught me to stand up for the right thing.”
He doesn’t have plans to become a teacher again upon graduation, but he does have his sights set on making changes to the education sector as a whole.
“I have seen the problems in the education sector, and I seek to attack laws that impede progress and initiate programs that solve problems,” Bridgeforth said.“I will always chase after the larger problems that plague our society.
“At heart, I will always be a teacher. I honestly feel that when I present my arguments before a court, I am teaching the judge and the jury. Consequently, I have not stopped being a teacher, I just have a different classroom.”
EVAN JOHNSON (3L) - Berclair Elementary School | Memphis Teacher Residency
Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR) has a vision of using their specific work within education to help restore communities, so that all individuals can become empowered contributors to Memphis and people of all races and classes can engage with one another in peace
It’s a program that brings young educators from across the country into some of our most at-need schools.
It’s what brought Evan Johnson to Berclair Elementary School to become a teacher.
“Originally, I decided to become a teacher after working as a summer camp counselor in Missouri during college,” said Johnson. “One of my friends from college, who was a couple of years older than me and who also worked at the summer camp, had already been accepted into the MTR program and I really liked the idea of an alternative path to teaching as opposed to the traditional route. Teaching seemed like the best way for me to utilize my strengths and passion for being helpful.”
It didn’t take long before Johnson had moved to Memphis and began his residency program at MTR in 2014. In the program, he received a year of course work toward a master’s degree in education, served in his classroom at Berclair Elementary under a mentor teacher and received regular feedback from his MTR coach. After completion of his first year, he became a fully licensed teacher and was placed back at Berclair Elementary, where he was already familiar with the culture, students and staff, which allowed him a great degree of comfort for his first teaching job. He continued to teach there for three more years, focusing on math and science for fourth and fifth grades.
Johnson spent those four years teaching others the skills they would need to succeed in school and life, but it’s the lessons he learned from them that seem to have resonated the most. “After four years of teaching, I felt like I better understood myself — my skills, interests and passions,” said Johnson. “Part of the reason I taught was because I care deeply about educational equity and students having the same opportunities for success no matter their race, socioeconomic status, zip code or any other similar factor. I started to realize that my specific skills and passions would be better utilized toward educational equity through obtaining a law degree more than remaining in the classroom.”
Since his decision to leave teaching and enter law school, he finds himself discovering how those lessons continue to help him as a law student.
“I spent four years standing in front of 30 people and teaching them every day,” Johnson said. “Teaching always made me feel as if I was on a stage and in the spotlight, which is one of the reasons it is so exhausting. But the amount of preparation needed for it also helped me transition into the amount of preparation needed as a law student and future attorney.
“Lawyers are often ‘teaching’ a jury, court, client or other individual about a specific facet of the law or how it applies in various situations, so a lot of what I learned as a teacher about how people actually learn has helped me in the legal arena as well.”
As he reflects back on his time as a teacher, Johnson sees the relationships he was able to build with his students as his greatest accomplishment from that time. He never wanted to be seen as their friend or buddy — they already had plenty of those — but rather he valued his work to get them to see that he was on their team and had their best interests in mind. Their willingness to be honest with him and come to him in moments of need were some of his greatest victories.
Now that he is set to embark upon the next stage of his career, he still sees a place in his future for issues involving education.
“I am still very passionate about education — particularly educational equity — so I would love to continue to be involved in education in any way that I can,” Johnson said.
“That being said, I think my experience as an educator, combined with a law degree, puts me in a good position to influence things like educational equity because I know what it is like to teach in a public school and also have some idea of what things look like on the legal side.”
From Berclair Elementary to Memphis Law, the lessons are still rolling in for him.
ROSE LOGAN (3L) - Cornerstone Prep Lester Campus | Memphis Teacher Residency
Rose Logan knew she was moving to Memphis after receiving her undergraduate degree from Indiana University Bloomington. She just had no idea that she would become a teacher.
She initially committed to come to Memphis and participate in the Downline Ministries Emerging Leaders program, with a start date of August 2013. But before starting that program, she learned about a summer camp hosted by Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR) focused on summer learning loss and helping restore how students felt about their school itself. She credits this camp with setting her upon some of the first steps of this important phase of her journey.
“This camp opened my eyes to education inequity,” Logan said. “It took place at Cornerstone Prep in Binghampton and showed me the importance of Black students having Black teachers.”
The camp was run by MTR leadership who, after seeing how well Logan worked with the students and families in the community, encouraged her to apply for residency with MTR after her year with Downline Ministries. As she was completing the Emerging Leaders program at Downline, she became an assistant special education teacher at Cornerstone Prep, where she began to really learn more about the state of education in Memphis.
“The truth is, throughout the nation, the quality of education students receive is often determined by the zip code they live in,” said Logan. “As a teacher, I sought to combat one of the greatest social justice and civil rights issues in America — educational inequity.”
It wasn’t long afterward that Logan applied and became a part of the 2014-15 class at Memphis Teacher Residency.
It was at Cornerstone Prep where she experienced some of the greatest success stories, as well as hard lessons, of her teaching career, many of which she still draws upon today.
As is often the case with teachers, the personal effort and extra attention given beyond the minimum required produced the best results for her. Logan shared a story about a particularly difficult fourth-grade student who acted out in frustration, sometimes aggressively.
“My second year of teaching I had a student who was known for his behavior and his disdain for school. When frustrated, he would punch the desk, throw papers on the floor and even storm out of class. He would often have to be restrained by me in order to avoid him harming himself. I noticed he always got frustrated during reading. One day I pulled him aside and told him I saw him. He was on a first-grade reading level in the fourth grade. Whenever it was time for reading, I would allow students to read aloud as we went along. Imagine him sitting in that chair terrified that he was going to get called on to read and looking at the book being unable to access the words on the page. His fear was fueling his frustration. When I pulled him aside, I told him I would not be calling on him to read aloud. I removed that fear from his mind. I also told him I would teach him to read on grade level before the year was up. His end of the bargain was to control his behavior and trust me. During our time of reading aloud, he would circle words he knew as he followed along in his book. I also used my free time to backfill the reading skills he needed to get up to grade level. His mom said I was the first teacher so willing to reach him. His behavior changed immediately. He was on grade level by the end of the year. We celebrated a lot. I am still in touch with his family to this day.”
It's stories like this one that helped Logan learn a valuable lesson, which was to always ask “Why?” She notes that there is always a reason for a student’s behavior and asking why something happened would oftentimes result in a dramatically changed attitude or improved situation. It’s a lesson that has carried over into her time in law school and beyond.
“It’s important to ask questions when you are confused,” Logan said. “As a teacher, I made it a point to always tell my students to ask me when something does not make sense. In law school, whenever I am confused about something, I ask my professor. Sometimes I ask during class and sometimes I ask during office hours, but I always ask.”
In a sentiment echoed by her peers in this profile, Logan also notes the importance of building relationships as a skill set in both teaching and as a student in law school. As a result of her honing the ability to build relationships as a teacher with students in her classroom, she has been intentional in building relationships while in law school. She has worked hard to build strong relationships with peers, professors, mentors, judges and future employers.
“As a teacher, you have to have the ability to build relationships,” Logan said. “Law school is hard. You need support at every level. You also need people who can speak to your character. Your character will always precede you. I have received many opportunities because I was mentioned in rooms that I had yet to enter because of the relationships I developed in law school.”