Merging Mission and Passion

Trio of Hastings College Friends Fired Up About Recruiting Teachers

While they were on their way to changing the world, Hastings College student Tahj Willingham admits that he and roommates Steven Dunham and Casey Molifua had plenty of passion, but little direction.

Conversation in their off-campus apartment frequently tackled world-sized problems, but mustered little forward motion.

“We had passion. We tried to fight every battle that we saw. We tried to correct every injustice,” said Willingham. “We were so lost and without direction.”

Their passion didn’t merge with a mission until Instructor of Education Ann Auten encouraged them to attend the Student Education Association of Nebraska (SEAN) spring conference in Lincoln a year ago. Willingham and Dunham attended the social justice-themed conference. NEA Student Organizer Chris Settle gave the keynote.

Settle offered ideas and challenged Willingham and Dunham to take a first step. When Molifua learned of Settle’s encouragement, he was on board. The trio began to bounce ideas off Auten, Assistant Professor of Education Lisa Smith and other Hastings College mentors, and consulted with NSEA’s state advisors to SEAN, Kristi Capek and Kristen Sedlacek.

With encouragement and inspiration from those quarters, a plan began to coalesce. All had been steered from across the country to Hastings, and at Hastings, toward teaching. In that teaching friendly environment, with all that support, it suddenly clicked: they would undertake a mission to encourage minority college students, particularly males, to consider teaching as a profession. They have since organized Ethnic and Minority Educators 4 a Legacy – EME4L – focused on recruiting those with diverse backgrounds into teaching.

They’ve had sweatshirts printed with the ‘Ethnic and Minority Educators for a Legacy’ on the front. The back of the sweatshirts carry these words: “If Not Us, Then Who? If Not Now, Then When?”

Nearly a year after their epiphany, they have traveled the country, started an after school book club for fourth and fifth graders at a local elementary school, and will soon begin traveling to Nebraska college and university campuses telling their stories. All of this is done as they ask students of all ages – especially minorities – to consider a teaching career.

Teaching Corps Not Reflective

About 32 percent of children in Nebraska’s K-12 schools are identified as minority. Yet just four percent of the state’s K-12 educators hold minority standing.

“The problem is that the public education teaching force is not reflective of its ever-diversifying student population,” said Willingham, who understands the need for a diversified teaching corps.

Growing up in Denver his parents enrolled him in predominantly white high schools. He never really experienced a classroom with a teacher of color.

“It is just the dichotomy of being black in America. You go to an all-white school and there are certain things you have to deal with that other students just don’t understand,” he said.

Post-high school, he attended community college and worked an overnight shift stamping out 30,000 credit cards over eight hours. He decided that football would enable him to leave his factory job and neighborhood and further his education. That led him to Hastings, where he is an elementary education and physical education major.

He hopes to teach and eventually move to a principalship or even a superintendency.

“I just hope to climb the educational ladder and achieve as much as I can,” he said.

Molifua graduated from Lincoln North Star in 2011 and with “football as my primary learning experience,” also landed at Hastings College. He earned a degree in exercise science in 2015, finished a master’s in physical education, and now teaches motor learning and development, and foundation of exercise science. He is also the accommodations coordinator for the college’s learning center, working with students as they move from high school to college.

In high school, Molifua found a connection with the in-school suspension supervisor.

“He had a way of connecting with the ‘bad kids,’ so to speak. He listened to us, he knew where we were coming from. He just had good ears,” said Molifua. “He was the teacher who would come and eat with us and just kind of talk with us about football practice or our geometry test.”

‘There is No Paper Trail’

Willingham said his school’s disciplinary figures, too, were usually played by minority figures, “and that’s why I think we gravitated towards them more. We would get kicked out of class on purpose to go hang out with someone who would listen.

“That goes into saying how having someone that looks like you can play a role in how effective they will be in altering your life decisions,” he said.

Dunham earned a bachelor’s degree from Hastings in 2016 and briefly worked at a sporting goods store, quickly realizing that was not a good fit. Today he is finishing a master’s degree in K-12 physical education and health. He grew up in a military family and graduated from high school in Oklahoma. His middle school PE and homeroom teacher was an African American woman.

“She wasn’t a disciplinarian, but she held me accountable for what I was doing. At that point in my life, that was what I needed,” he said. “She actually cared about who I was as a person, and that definitely has had an impact on why I plan to become a PE teacher.”

A teacher, said Dunham, touches an infinite number of lives.

“You don’t know how many lives you are changing, you don’t know how many worlds you are changing,” he said.

“There is no paper trail.”

‘A Calling More than a Career’

By the fall of 2015, Molifua had switched his major from education to exercise science and then, fortunately, back to education. He had walked for his bachelor’s degree and planned to spend his final fall semester playing football and working on a master’s degree. He planned to leave the master’s unfinished and begin a job search at the winter break. But his coursework that fall included a multicultural education class taught by Smith.

“It was in that multicultural class where I knew that I could make an impact in education,” he said.

Willingham was in the same education class. He called the course a turning point.

“That class just really kind of tied me in, showed me that education was a calling more than a career,” he said.

That semester was the only time the three were on the football field together. They became fast friends, and were soon roommates, spending spare time solving world problems. Molifua stayed in school and earned a master’s and was asked to join the college faculty.

‘Diversity has no Face’

Their project finally gained a razor-sharp focus at NSEA’s Teach to Lead event in Kearney in early December. The three men, along with Smith, comprised one of nine teams that brought a “problem” to the event. With the help of a facilitator and a critical friend assigned to their team, they pinpointed their goal: raise the number of minorities in Nebraska’s teaching force.

“You’re not going to be able to just throw 15 teachers, 50 minority teachers into the teaching force tomorrow,” said Willingham. “So really what we are doing is raising more awareness.”

Molifua notes that “minority” in their context is very broad. Their definition would include teachers with disabilities, LGBTQ+ teachers and others not generally seen leading a classroom.

“We always say that diversity has no face, there is not just one stamp that gets you to be ‘diverse,’” he said.

Change will take baby steps, he said. The culturally appropriate after school book club for fourth and fifth graders they helped instigate at a Hastings elementary school is an example. The club was one of their first ideas a year ago, and a teacher they had worked with in Hastings was aboard. Their first reading was in January, using books for every participant donated by NSEA’s Ethnic and Minority Affairs Committee.

“It’s that trickle-down effect that I love so much – we can give that student a book and if they like the story they can read it to a sibling and it can just keep making an impact,” said Willingham.

‘If We Could Change one Life...’

The connections they have made through SEAN, and then through NSEA, have also trickled down.

“If you had told us two years ago that ‘You guys are going to be working with the president and the executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association,’ we would have laughed,” said Molifua.

Yet that has happened. NSEA President Jenni Benson said their mission has garnered wide attention and respect.

“These three young men have come so far in the past year. It will be exciting to watch and see how far they carry their mission,” said Benson. “They will become excellent teachers, excellent leaders.”

After they attended the NEA Student Program Summer Leadership Conference in Boston last summer, they were invited to present at the Black Male Educators Conference in Philadelphia. They also attended NEA’s Minority Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.

It was on one of their return flights that Dunham said they learned how simple steps can make a big difference.

Many people ask about the sweatshirt message, which Dunham said gives an opening to talk about what Nebraska’s student population looks like, what the state’s teaching force looks like, and more.

Dunham said they were touched when a woman in an airport saw the sweatshirts and began to tell her story. As it turned out, she was a retired principal, and had taught in Nebraska for 40 or so years.

“I told her what the sweater was about, and she just started bawling and couldn’t stop hugging me,” said Dunham. “She said ‘the world needs more people like you.’
“If all of this ended tomorrow, that right there would be a success story to me,” said Dunham. “If we could change one life, if all we do is change one life, then I figure it’s a success story.”