Teach For America South Carolina 2016
Equity Specialist, Baltimore City Public Schools
In 2016, as a senior at Columbia College, Paige Riggins faced a tough decision.
“The murder of Trayvon Martin* in 2012 had a big impact on me,” said Riggins. “He was my age, and what happened to him prompted many questions about the way I wanted to navigate society with my identity. I had to ask if I wanted to go into journalism as I’d planned, or to tackle race relations in a different way.”
A friend insisted Riggins could play a valuable role in supporting racial equity as a teacher. When Riggins looked into education, she discovered Teach For America’s mission statement: To enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equality and excellence.
“When I joined Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC), I felt like I was at home for the first time in a long time,” said Riggins.
In Riggins’s case, she was home. Literally.
She was placed by TFASC to teach English Language Arts to eighth-grade students at Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School in Holly Hill, S.C. Riggins was a student at this middle school, which is only eight miles from her hometown, Vance.
Holly Hill was the right place.
“For years, I felt like I’d moved farther and farther from my inner voice,” she said. “I joined TFASC to be part of a movement and to make a difference. Working with the teachers in this community helped me see this is the path for my life.”
Riggins found a sense of purpose in the messy joy of the classroom.
“The first year,” she confessed, “is sheer survival. But by the second year, you really start to understand what you’re doing, and you see how you’re making a difference to students.”
She feels that TFASC’s training gave her valuable insights into being a culturally relevant teacher.
“It was important to understand that even students that looked like me … weren’t like me,” said Riggins. “Students are their own people, and my training helped me realize how to build relationships with them by being vulnerable – by being real. It did not diminish my own humanity, it increased it.”
Riggins’s advice to new TFASC teachers?
“A healthy work-life balance – and a thirst for continuous learning – have made me appreciate my craft so much more,” she said.
“You’ll sometimes have to step back, do your own identity work, and carve out a healthy balance. Doing outside research will make or break your teaching skills, your pedagogy. And it will make you a better educator in the long run.”
Riggins moved from South Carolina in 2021 to serve as an equity specialist for the Baltimore City Public Schools. In this role, she works collaboratively with multiple schools to make students’ educational experiences more equitable through access to resources and capacity building for staff.
“The work I am doing day by day, student by student, is going to make it just a little easier for those who come after me,” said Riggins. “If everybody in the movement for educational equity drops even a small stone in the bucket, it’s going to make a difference.”
Editor’s note: In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot on his way home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida by an armed community watch member. Martin’s death launched nationwide protests from citizens outraged by racial profiling and stand-your-ground gun laws.