Under LaToya Morgan’s bright pink blazer, her shirt reads SuperHeroine and judging from the reaction of the fourth-grade class she’s working with, the label fits.
“Being the media specialist here at Carver, I can come in and be whoever I want to be,” she said. “I like to dress up, to get into character, and the kids, they just love it. I’m able to be this little superhero.”
Between constantly reminding her pupils to pull up their masks, Morgan reinforces important facts about the suffragette movement. After the students heard a book on the fight for voting rights, a quiz contest has the kids jumping in excitement.
“The personalities… woo!” she said, laughing. “I feed off them and they feed off me, and I love it. The kids, the excitement they get from reading is just amazing.”
Morgan says working at Carver is like being part of a small family. She knows every student’s name and enjoys the support of her principal and colleagues in the building.
That hasn’t always been the case. During her career, Morgan says she’s worked in every district in Pulaski county, and even a charter school. She said her first year in a Pulaski County middle school opened her eyes to the challenges facing our public school students.
“That was the first time that I saw disparity in a school and that where kids needed the most, they had the least, because of politics,” she said. “Those kids had so much to offer, but it took you sometimes having to kind of pull.”
Heaters that didn’t work meant freezing hallways on cold days; and raccoons, rats and mice would sometimes fall from the ceilings. The library was filled with outdated books, and the school didn’t have the resources or technology available in other schools. She said the aging and unkept building created a culture among many students that school wasn’t important.
“I think a lot of times some students are looked at like they’re not good enough, or they’re too challenging to even try things with,” she said. “A lot of times you think kids don’t hear you, and sometimes their actions don’t match what you’re telling them, but you don’t realize you may be the only positive influence that they see all day long.”
Even though the conditions were challenging, Morgan says this is where she truly understood she was a teacher.
“At that time I had a mohawk, a blonde mohawk so when students would see that mohawk coming they would go the other direction,” she said. “They knew I wasn’t playing. I had expectations for them.”
A group of like-minded educators worked together with the support of their principal to take a proactive approach to working with students and providing them with extra support and attention.
“We got together and we formed a little support group, and we would discuss different ideas and plans,” she said. “I did a book fair that year. They hadn’t had a book fair in years. A book fair!”
A Valentine’s Day dance in the cafeteria provided a chance for the kids to dress up and enjoy food and music.
“They had a great time, they were excited,” she said. “We just gave them opportunities. We created the things we wanted to exist because we didn’t have those things, so we created it.”
“When you talk to kids and are honest with them and you listen to them, and you share your wisdom, it just makes a world of difference,” she said. “I just have a good rapport with children. I can talk to them. I don’t know if it’s because of my stature — because I’m kind of on the same level as them — so I think sometimes they feel like they can relate to me.”
Following that “challenging, but good” year, Morgan was assigned to a new school in the same district, but a different town.
“They had a new building, technology… anything they wanted they had it,” Morgan said. “Things they didn’t need they had it. Resources that weren’t available in the other spot… that shouldn’t be determined by your zip code.”
Morgan’s face scrunches up behind her mask with the memory.
“Going from one building to the next in the same district… it was just… I don’t know. There are no words. I was disgusted,” she said. “Imagine if those kids in Jacksonville would have had the resources the kids at Sylvan Hills had, how different they would be.”
While her experience at Jacksonville Middle made her a teacher, moving to the new school made her an advocate.
“There were so many kids that got caught up in what I’m going to call the ‘grown folks’ business,’” she said. “Because of the things grown folks did, children suffered and their education suffered. Their academics suffered. Their mental state suffered.”
Now in the Little Rock School District, Morgan serves as a representative on the PPC. She says when she sees a problem, she assists, and she’s not afraid to speak up.
“If you have a voice and you keep your mouth closed, what’s going to change?” she said. “Nothing.”
She’s also adept at getting parents involved and says the information she shares gets spread through word of mouth.
“I’ve seen parents that want to help their kids but don’t know how,” she said. “A typical person doesn’t know they can attend a school board meeting. They don’t know they can send their concerns to their school board member, and that’s if they know who their board member is. A lot of people don’t even know what zone they live in.”
Morgan discovered that unfortunate fact firsthand when she ran for a seat on the North Little Rock School Board.
“I found that out while I was knocking on doors,” she said. “Constituents were like, ‘Oh, what? Who? What is all this?’ People don’t realize even if you don’t have kids in the district, what your tax dollars pay for. You still should have a voice. I’m all about giving people a voice, I’m all about giving children a voice and I’m all about teaching and showing people how to use their voice.”
She says the Arkansas Education Association is invaluable in that effort, working to ensure students are at the forefront of policy discussions on public schools.
“While we’re hard at work, laws and decisions are being made about us as educators and more importantly the children that we teach,” she said. “There are not enough hours in the day for us to do both.” they fight for you and for children while we’re working, and if we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have a lot of the benefits we have now.
The association is also a place to meet and learn from like-minded educators, not to mention a powerful ally when you need to take a stand.
“Working in education you wouldn’t think that you would need someone to have your back because you’re taking care of the most precious cargo, and that’s children,” she said. “When you have to take a stand, and I know many novice teachers are sometimes afraid to speak up when you see something wrong, or when you’re being mistreated because you don’t want to be labeled. No one wants to come in and work in a hostile work environment or a toxic work environment, but the AEA has your back. And you just need someone to have your back.”
That support has also been important this year, as the team at Carver and schools across the state work to provide learning opportunities amidst a public health crisis.
“There is not a manual for how to do it,” she said. “You’re just going through trial and error and that’s what I’ve been doing as a library media specialist. I can’t have classes in the library because it’s not safe.”
The virus has forced new procedures for checking out books, with quarantines and a “you touch it, it’s yours” policy. Like any other challenge, Morgan has found a way to use it to benefit her kids.
“Now the kids know how to research our collection on their own, so there are some skills that have developed,” she said. “They know when you come in you have to have an idea about what author, or book you’re checking out. Now they know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and they even know how to go to the shelf and get it. Before it was, ‘Ms. Morgan, where’s that book?’”
She’s also starting a virtual book club, where her students are reading books about people who resemble them, which sometimes isn’t reflected in everyday curriculum.
“I want kids to see who they can be,” she said. “We need scientists. We’re going to need a lot of therapists after this. We’re going to need teachers after this. We can’t give up on these kids. They’re all we have.”