By Jason Ng
After working in television writing, Clayvon Harris decided to follow her heart by transitioning to teaching so that she can make her contributions inside the classroom and help youths in her hometown of Philadelphia. Stepping foot inside the classroom opened her eyes to the many problems that exist within Philly’s public school system, and it led Clayvon to write her memoir Sub: Inside the Notorious School District of Philadelphia. In her memoir, she documents her experience working with students while shedding light on a broken education system that is failing the students and youths that make up the next generation. With us, Clayvon shares her journey from being a writer to substitute teacher, as well as her thoughts on the necessity of education reform not just in Philadelphia, but across our country.
What led you to pursue screenwriting at USC?
From the time I was big enough to change the channel without assistance, I loved television. But by the time I graduated from college, I was more than a little disappointed by the often stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. I shared this sentiment with a mentor who told me about a miraculous thing called “film school” and suggested that if I applied, I should apply to USC because it’s the best.
Can you tell us how you arrived at the decision to leave television writing to become a substitute teacher in Philadelphia?
I was working in half-hour and was doing fairly well, but I felt that hour-longs would allow me to explore some of the more complex issues that I wanted to tackle. Switching over proved to be very difficult at the time. Often the people I met with weren’t expecting a woman, and certainly not a black one. My agent was getting feedback like, “She’s great, but this isn’t a black show.” Or, “We love her, but we don’t know what to do with her. We don’t have any black dramas.”
After a string of similar encounters, I began to rethink my career choice. I had always been interested in teaching and thought I might be able to make more of a contribution in the classroom. I applied for emergency teaching credentials in LA but while I was waiting for my classroom assignment, it occurred to me that I could teach in my hometown and be near my family. However, when I returned to Philadelphia, I discovered that it didn’t offer emergency credentials and my choices were to get certified or to sub. I decided subbing would allow me to see what teaching was all about before committing to a two-year certification program.
What did you learn or encounter during your time as a substitute teacher that you didn’t expect?
Nothing was as I expected it to be. But the thing that really shocked me was how much time I spent in nearly every class trying to calm or manage one or two students who were disrupting the learning process. As I continued subbing and talking with veteran teachers and counselors, I came to understand that often the most disruptive students were struggling under the burden of unmanaged emotional and behavioral disorders that made it very challenging for them to thrive in a general education classroom. They bullied, hit and choked other students, ran around the classroom, talked, played and sometimes screamed or cried through lessons. And there was relatively little support provided by the schools because they didn’t have the staff or resources to address all of the students who needed specialized attention. During my first long-term assignment, I really started to think about just how much valuable learning time was lost every day. Over the years, that adds up.
What are some of the skills that you’ve gained through SCA that have translated well into your role as a teacher?
The most valuable skill I gained, by far, was the ability to tell a story. If you can weave the who, what, where, why of any lesson together in a concise and engaging way, children respond.
What prompted you to write your book on your experience inside the Philadelphia school district? Why is this topic so important?
I had no choice. I met so many smart, sweet, funny kids who wanted to learn but were stuck in a disrupted environment where it’s difficult to learn and teach. Students begin falling behind academically in kindergarten. The loss of education multiplies as they advance from grade to grade together. By the time they get to middle school, they’re behind. By the time they get to high school, for many, there’s no catching up.
Philly’s dropout rate is about 30% versus the 22% national average. Students who do graduate are often unprepared for college or a career. Some go on to college but get stuck paying additional money for remedial classes to gain basic knowledge and skills, so college is more expensive for them. Others find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs with little upward mobility. Then the next generation of students, often the children of the students who came before, wind up in the same underfunded, underperforming neighborhood schools that all but guarantee a place in a permanent, self-replenishing underclass. When you think about the cumulative impact of that type of cycle on a community—it’s just devastating. I hoped Sub would help people better understand the challenges many students and teachers are facing and, perhaps, do something about it.
In your book, you spoke about getting the chance to substitute for a teacher at the high school that you would have attended had you not enrolled in a private school. Can you tell us about that experience of having been a part of the two worlds?
Although there are some great public schools in Philadelphia, most of Philly’s public schools (80-85%) are failing or underperforming. If you live in Philadelphia, chances are high that your neighborhood schools are not stellar. The public high school in the neighborhood where I grew up was known to be “pretty rough”. I was fortunate in that I was sent to Catholic and private school, so it wasn’t until I had the chance to visit as a substitute teacher that I truly understood what “pretty rough” meant. It was crowded, violent and had lots of absentee students and teachers. Yet there were also students who really wanted to learn, but the school was failing them. And it still is.
Why is education so important to you, and how can we hammer home the idea that it is important for everyone to receive a good education?
On an individual level, a good education may be the only way out of poverty for many children; the only thing that gives them the chance to live up to their potential. On a societal level, America needs a well-educated workforce to compete globally. In 2017, only 39% of all US students were prepared for college-level work in 3 or 4 subjects, and it was even worse in 2019. Closing the racial achievement gap between native white students and black and brown students would boost America’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by over $500 billion a year. Raising the level of academic achievement for all US students (black, brown, white, etc.) to at least the basic level of achievement on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam would, over time, raise the GDP of the United States by $30 trillion dollars. That would translate into a lot of extra money circulating in the US economy.
What are your thoughts on the responsibility of the teacher, the student, the school, and the education system in making sure that kids get the proper education in the classroom?
Obviously, there’s responsibility at all of those levels, but the big changes have to start at the top. Right now, a group of parents, organizations and advocates are suing the state of Pennsylvania because by 2020, the whitest school districts in PA were receiving $2400 more per student than districts with high numbers of children of color. There’s no way this type of inequity should be happening. But about half of all US states had to be court-ordered to make their education funding practices fair for all schools within their borders. There will likely be more lawsuits, including the one that’s taking place now in my home state.
Do you have any regrets about leaving the entertainment industry to pursue this path that you’ve taken?
I try not to focus too much on regret. But, if I’m honest, I do think I left a bit too early and I do miss it. I’ve had the opportunity to work in education, advertising, marketing communications, and to write two books. While it’s all been fulfilling in different ways, I’ve never had more fun working than I did when I was writing for TV.
What can readers of this Spotlight do to help support education reform?
Like everything else in the US, it comes down to being informed about what’s happening—not just in your state but also across the US—and voting for candidates who support positive change. That includes fair education funding laws and reform of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act so that all children get the support and education they need to become the best version of themselves.