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AARP Purpose Prize Winner Bettye Perkins Skip to content

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Dr. Bettye Perkins

Recipient of 2018 Andrus Award for Intergenerational Excellence and President & CEO of Today's Students Tomorrow's Teachers (TSTT)

Our program helps to nurture and mentor the students through high school and college. There are no shortcuts, this work requires extensive amounts of time and effort. But the payoff is great.”

En español | More than 20 years ago, the lack of diversity in the teaching work force prompted me to start Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers (TSTT). Our mission is to recruit culturally diverse and economically challenged students in both high school and college and train them to become effective teachers and committed leaders who strengthen schools and communities. Today, nearly 5,000 teachers are volunteering their time to mentor and train over 800 of our students — half of whom are on full scholarships — in four states: New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia.

The problem I’m trying to solve

America has long experienced a racial student achievement gap that’s barely narrowed in 50 years, despite federal and states’ efforts and funding. Based on my observations and research, I believe that the single greatest impediment to increasing academic performance and graduation rates among children of color is the lack of teachers who mirror the cultural diversity of students. In a 2015, a study funded by the American Educational Research Association, researchers found non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 18 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million teachers are teachers of color, and less than 2 percent are African American males. This is why TSTT has established a research-based, Full-Circle Teacher Preparation model to motivate students to complete high school, graduate from college and become teachers themselves. We have a team of six regional program managers who implement the program in area schools, nurturing and mentoring students throughout high school and college. There are no shortcuts: this type of work requires an incredible amount of time, money and effort. But the payoffs are great. One of my most successful students, for example, dropped out of college his first year with a 1.7 GPA. I didn’t write him off — I kept in touch with him, and a few years later he came back into the program. He’s now an assistant principal in one of our school districts. Many of these kids aren’t going to do the straight and narrow. You have to guide them, and there are setbacks, but eventually they morph into noble citizens.

The moment that sparked my passion

In 1993, I left my 20-year corporate job at IBM.  When I first graduated from college, I had been a middle school English teacher, and I figured at the age of 45 I could combine my love of education with my management experience and become a school superintendent. As part of my training, I did an internship at a high school in Bedford, N.Y., where I came up with a minority teacher recruitment strategy. (Although student enrollment was about 23 percent black, there were very few black teachers.) I started a club at the school for teens who were considering teaching, and I fell in love with my first cohort of 10 kids. They became like my own little family. I relished how curious they were, and how thirsty they were for guidance. After two decades in corporate America, these kids made my heart sing. I knew then that my calling was to guide them on their journey to a career in education.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

All of us were given the gift of life, and a gift of purpose. But it’s up to each one of us to find out what our own individual unique purpose is. Once you find it, it will unleash your passion, and passion is what drives success, not talent. When I first started TSTT, I realized I needed to make sure most of my students got college scholarships. I took my marketing and sales skills and called up the presidents of all six colleges in the area. All six met with me, and all six signed on to provide financial assistance. People are always surprised when I tell them this story, but the truth is, if you’re truly passionate about something, people will sense it and be willing to go on this journey with you.

The struggles that shaped my life

I was raised in acute poverty in the segregated South in a single parent household. My father died when I was 5, and my mother had six mouths to feed. But despite our hardships, we always went to church every Sunday. We may not have had much, but we had our spirituality, and it was enough to get us through. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I think one of the reasons I love working with teenagers so much is I see myself in them. These are kids who are needy — they need love and someone to guide them, especially since many of them, like me, come from single-parent homes.

Why my approach is unique

I’ve researched over 240 future teacher programs across the country and discovered that none of them provide the necessary financial and emotional support that students so desperately need. There are many fine programs that introduce teaching, or college prep programs, or college retention programs, but none that combines all three. As a result, we’ve created the Full-Circle Teacher Preparation Model, which guides students starting in eighth grade all through high school, college and graduation — right into their teaching careers with continuing outreach and follow-up. We match these students with teachers and educators who mentor them and provide support for their studies. We also introduce TSTT participants to their fellow students as role models. At our 2017 Recognition Brunch we congratulated two 10-year teachers, three five-year teachers and three three-year teachers on their accomplishments. Now that's a full-circle teacher preparation program!

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