How White Teachers (And MANY Other Factors) Helped Me Achieve Success

Written by Sophia Sunshine Vilceus

Re: “How Are These White Teachers At A Long Island School Helping Black Kids Achieve Above- Average Graduation Rates?” (New York School Talk)

I, like many of my friends who graduated from Elmont, cringed when I initially read this suggestive title.  Sent by my sister-friend who is a New York City educator and attended Elmont, I hesitantly opened up the link from her text with much reservation. When I was done reading the article, however, I felt unsettled — unsettled because there was a concoction of truth melded with some dangerous and problematic notions and ideologies.

I agree with many of the sentiments of the article.

I certainly agree that Elmont Memorial High School is an amazing educational institution, that produces brilliant scholars and gives the space to students to absolutely flourish.

I agree that the majority of Elmont Memorial students are black and brown, and are taught by caring, compassionate, competent, Caucasian educators.

But to suggest that part of the ascendancy of Elmont students is because our white, educators held us to the same standards as they would for other demographics is problematic. What does that even mean anyway? We must be meticulous about how we frame these narratives.

Yes, I adore and appreciate my Elmont educators, many of whom are white. Many of them shaped the trajectory of my career as an Educator.  

In my years at Elmont, I may have been taught by two educators, in total, who looked like me. Being taught by them did something essential for me that goes beyond a textbook or a Regents exam. It wasn’t until I got to college at the CUNY City College of New York and minored in Black Studies, that most of my educators were Black and Brown. They opened my eyes to truths about myself and society that many of my Elmont teachers simply could not do for a multitude of reasons — one being their race.

Yes, Elmont has some of the greatest educators on the Island. But that does not mean that every single white teacher was here for us or wholeheartedly believed in us — let’s get real. That, too, taught us an invaluable lesson: for every few highly competent people in any given field, there will be some who are not and who have made it through the cracks.

As black and brown students and people, we still have to make it anyhow. We learned to excel whether or not every single teacher taught us to the best of their ability. Let’s not even mention the different quality of education that was often granted to “Advance Placement Students” and “Regular” students, which is a whole divergent conversation.

Granted, the demographics of the educators at Elmont may have changed since I graduated a decade ago, but I believe it is beneficial and essential for young students to see people in authority and education that can identify with them and connect with them on various levels. We need to see ourselves in the people that hold the positions that we are striving for. (Other than “sports, entertainment, and the like.”)

We did not have mediocre black teachers at Elmont. We had one black teacher at Elmont. (I’m exaggerating here, I’m sure we had maybe two.)

And that one black teacher (who we all know and love), well, she was/is amazing, not only because she is a gifted educator but because she celebrated her blackness and ours too.

She let us know that she saw us in herself and vice versa. She let us know that she saw us. She was adored by us. We didn’t deny seeing color. The point is, to state that a competent white teacher is more valuable than a mediocre black teacher is correct, but irrelevant in the case of Elmont because we had such limited colored professionals. And like many other arenas in life, these black teachers had to, arguably, work doubly as hard to be taken seriously both by their colleagues and the students (who were not used to seeing colored teachers).

As an educator myself, I certainly know the influence that we have in a child’s life, based on what we do in our classrooms.

At the crux of the successes of Elmont students are determined, over-worked, inspirational immigrant parents who forged a way for us.

They afforded us a quality education that they did not always necessarily receive themselves.  We cannot overlook the role that good parenting and a stable family home contributes to developing a well rounded, wholesome, educated, young colored person.

I am indebted to all of my educators at Elmont. But my success wasn’t founded on solely being educated by “white saviors.”  My family, my faith, my adversity, my community, and my will to be the best version of myself are all significant factors that contributed to and ensured my success.

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Sophia Vilceus graduated from Elmont Memorial High School as her Class President in 2007. She went on to The CUNY City College of New York to pursue her undergraduate studies, then to Howard University for an advanced degree. Sophia is currently based out of Maryland where she is an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Montgomery College, and Prince Georges Community College. She has been published in Heart & Soul Magazine and The Praying Woman. Sophia says her greatest life’s work so far is her new book, The Last Pew: Journeying Back to God’s Will After an Affair, available for purchase now at

Written by Sophia Sunshine Vilceus


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