CATEGORY: Teachers and Leaders

Melissa Oct 30, 2023

One spring evening, years ago, after a particularly intense workout, Theresa Langley went out with a few Crossfit friends. At the time, she had a prestigious job in legal marketing and a strong network of family and friends. But she always felt a nagging sense of unease, a feeling that she wasn’t quite giving back to the community that had given her so much. As an immigrant from Jamaica, she attributed much of her success to her parents, who supported her, and the teachers who encouraged her to reach her potential. On this particular day after the workout, she asked one of her Crossfit friends what he did for a living. “I’m a principal at an Achievement First middle school.” As soon as he said it, those dormant feelings rose and flooded her with inspiration. Noticing her excitement, the principal went immediately into recruitment mode. “You should consider teaching at my school.” “But I don’t have my certification.” “That’s okay. We can help you get it.” “But I’ve never taught before.” “That’s okay. We will give you an incredible amount of support and training before you are actually leading a classroom.” “But…” only she couldn’t think of any more buts. A few months later, Theresa was in a classroom full of middle school students and fully immersed in a two-year journey to becoming a certified teacher. As a Teacher-In-Residence, Theresa would shadow a master teacher while receiving ongoing support from AF and earning her master’s through the Relay Graduate School of Education. At first, she struggled. She was soft-spoken and felt nervous about the potential of student discipline. She had become so accustomed to the easy success of her previous career that her confidence had wavered in this new role. Interestingly, it was her CrossFit mindset that allowed her to push through. With Crossfit, failure is inevitable. When you can't do that handstand push-up, you watch others who can adjust your form and never give up–even when you fall flat on your face. And that’s what she did. She kept on observing successful teachers, she kept on practicing, and she found her groove. But in her second year, as things were starting to get better, Theresa received some difficult news: she was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. She decided not to share the news with any of her students because she wanted her classroom to be the one space where she was just “Miss Langley” and not a “cancer patient." She wanted her students to continue to be the silly, brilliant, and amazing kids they always were and not feel like they had to change for her. Fortunately, she started losing her hair at the exact moment when the movie Black Panther peaked in popularity. She shaved her head and told students it was inspired by the Wakanda female warriors. No questions asked. Just nods of affirming approval from her middle schoolers. For some, teaching middle schoolers would be the last thing you’d ever want to consider while undergoing chemotherapy. Teaching was an elixir for Theresa, a welcome respite from the myriad appointments, procedures, and scary conversations that dominated her days. Her students were a source of joy and comfort. They were, she believes, part of her treatment. Today, Theresa Langley is cancer-free and a veteran educator at Achievement First Voyager Middle School in Brooklyn. She’s not just surviving as a teacher; she’s thriving. She’s leading the school’s efforts to transition to a new, more rigorous reading curriculum. When asked if she has another career change ahead of her, perhaps school leadership, she responds with her typical modesty and nonchalance…and then does a bunch of deadlifts. She may have changed careers, but she didn’t change hobbies.

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