How I Drew Inspiration from a Remarkable Teacher, Jessica Stovall

Her work in shaping young minds and promoting racial equity, matters to me and many others

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Anyone who recalls having a favourite teacher from high school would be heartened by Jessica Stovall, a former English teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Aside from her infectious smile, it is Ms. Stovall’s inspiring efforts to develop a curriculum on racial equity that demonstrates her commitment as an educator.

Despite her school’s reluctance to embrace this new initiative, Ms. Stovall continues to provide leadership for her fellow teachers and members of the senior administration. But perhaps most compelling is her intractable spirit, on full display in the classroom. I was particularly struck by Ms. Stovall’s dedication to her students and her creativity in bringing about lasting lessons.

In one memorable instance, Ms. Stovall leads a role play to dramatize the difference between equality and equity. With a group of five students, she stands at the front of the room while donning a surgical cap. She asks them to imagine being in an emergency room.

“What’s your emergency?” she asks. They each respond by reading aloud a particular ailment written on an index card. The ailments range in severity from a headache to dehydration to a missing limb after a run-in with a shark.

“At Dr. Stovall’s emergency room I treat everyone the same” she announces while pantomiming the motion of giving each student a dose of Advil. The students sitting at their desks look on, laughing at the absurdity of prescribing Advil for a headache and a shark attack. What’s the problem, we might ask? She’s treating everyone equal.

“But their problems weren’t equal” one student calls out from the audience. Ms. Stovall responds by saying “We often think of equality as being fair, giving everyone the same thing. Equity on the other hand gives everyone what he or she needs in order to be successful.”

While writing term papers and research reports, I have found myself having to look up equality and equity to ensure that I’m using the right word. Even more so, I have been guilty of using these words interchangeably, failing to appreciate this important distinction. After seeing Ms. Stovall’s role play, I tried to recall how I first learned about equity, a moment equally forgettable as memorizing the dictionary definition of the word. At the time, equity seemed to have little resonance for me.

This simple yet vivid demonstration, has stuck with me over this past year as I transitioned from being a full-time PhD student to working a forty-hour-week as a grant facilitator. Equity very much informs the work I do, supporting faculty members with obtaining funding for their research. The barriers they face are abundant from the systems that promote unequal pay to those that allow people of privilege to command a disproportionate share of the funding that is available.

Every job description I see nowadays is accompanied by an equity and diversity statement, something to the effect of encouraging applicants from historically underrepresented groups. Yet, when I look around some of these offices, I don’t see much of myself. When I scan through employee directories, I don’t see names like mine.

Along with being a woman and a person of colour, I now face the daunting task of having to convince hiring managers of the value of a PhD in today’s workforce. I have absorbed the language of transferable skills while questioning why these skills (e.g. active listening, writing, communicating, problem solving, critical thinking, delivering presentations, empathizing with others, etc.) aren’t simply useful in the first place.

Outside the room where I had my final defence for my dissertation

Right around the time last year when I first learned of Ms. Stovall’s work, I was in the final stages of completing my PhD and grappling with the repercussions of what this would mean in the world of work. One day, I googled Ms. Stovall just to see what she was up to and, to my surprise, learned that she is currently enrolled as a PhD student in Race, Inequality, & Language at Stanford University.

I don’t know—something about it just made me feel proud that I too was pursuing a PhD. It made it worthwhile to see Ms. Stovall (soon to be Dr. Stovall), an amazing talent and inspiring educator, charting a similar path. Seeing myself in someone like her made me feel like I matter too.

A lovely surprise from my co-workers after completing my PhD

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