Elementary school teacher. Civil rights activist. Education advocate. Erika Jones ’00 has worn many hats. Today, she’s serving her third term on the California Teachers Association’s board of directors. In this position, she represents members of United Teachers of Los Angeles, advocating for better learning and teaching conditions in classrooms across the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Jones is also a leader of Mount Saint Mary’s Black Alumnae Association, working to advance equity across the University community. Below, she reflects on her time at Mount Saint Mary’s, shares how she built a career at the intersection of education and social justice and discusses what it has been like to support teachers through a pandemic.
In one word, how do you describe teaching during the pandemic?
Difficult. But I also have to say inspiring.
OK, now in more words. What has this past year-plus been like navigating the pandemic?
The difficulty is obvious. But I say it’s also been inspiring because of the great lengths teachers went to in order to stay connected with their students and continue supporting them. We saw educators statewide completely revamp their classroom to the digital space, with little to no training, and immediately reconnect with their students. So it was inspiring in that sense.
But it was also the most challenging year of my educational career. You always want students to have a safe and nurturing environment. To add a pandemic and literal survival on top of that, you can’t even explain how hard that is. Teachers lost colleagues. They lost parents. They had students lose parents. It’s just unbelievably difficult in so many layered ways. And then the huge political debates about school in the midst of one of the biggest racial justice uprisings we've had in this country. So, a most difficult year, but I hope we’re coming out of it better than we were before.
What’s one lesson learned during the pandemic that you hope makes things better moving forward?
Beyond the technological advances, I think the pandemic really sifted to the top the inequities that our students face, in real time. Everyone now understands that "normal" practices, pre-pandemic, weren’t benefiting all students. We know that now because, on Zoom, you see your students at home and you can see what they're doing and what they're having to navigate at home.
It changes you, seeing the difficulties some of our students are facing even before they can think about academics. We need to meet our students where they are to make it easier for them to learn and succeed.
How do you assess where kids are after a year of online learning? How do you get kids caught up who might have fallen behind this past year?
This is one of the main topics we’re discussing with educators right now. How do you authentically assess where students come in this fall? At the same time, we also want to push back on the pressure to standardize-test students right away. Kids haven’t been around each other in more than a year. They need to socialize and adjust to what it means to be a community in a classroom again.
We need to give space and time for students and teachers to reconnect in a human manner. Then, we can develop authentic assessments of where they are and craft curriculum as needed.
What kind of support do teachers need right now?
We can't ignore the mental health of educators right now. Everyone has survived a pandemic and survived traumas. But teachers are expected to put their own trauma aside and be there for students and communities. Teachers need healing time, too. We're trying to bring teachers together to have talks and assess needs. And make mental health check-ins an ongoing thing all year.
What inspired you to get into education?
I think the Mount actually prepared me to be a teacher even though I didn't realize it at the time. I was an international business major. But there was such an emphasis there on giving back and serving my community. I was involved in Campus Ministry, too. Gail Gresser and Laura Gomez were really influential in my life.
The big turning point for my career was going to alum get-togethers after graduating. I was going through different jobs after graduation and those get-togethers slowly helped me realize I wasn't in jobs of service and that was something that my heart was missing. The minute I started student teaching, I knew I was where I needed to be. I really do credit the ongoing emphasis on serving and community focus that the Mount puts out there. It's a path to joy. To meaning.
How did you transition from the classroom to teacher advocacy and education policy?
I’d taught all grades in elementary school, but I’d always remained an activist. The Mount opened my eyes to the different ways I could be an activist. As a teacher, I was always thinking, “How can I most effectively advocate for my students and what they're going through?” So, I started getting more involved in the union, and eventually ran for CTA board. In 2015, I was elected to my first term.
What’s your biggest goal right now as we move, hopefully, into a post-pandemic period?
My biggest focus is developing a social justice training program statewide where we're bringing together educators who can learn best practices and then train other teachers on different modules of social justice teaching: LGBTQ+, social justice advocacy and leadership training for BIPOC [black and indigenous people of color] educators. Teachers teaching teachers is super exciting to me. Through those conversations, educators can find their voice — and help their students find theirs. And, really, work at dismantling systems of racism and oppression within the school systems they're in.
Where did your passion for civil rights and social justice originate?
I always wanted to be the teacher that I needed as a student. Not the teachers I had. I was a young, black biracial kid in Kentucky who never saw teachers who looked like me. I never took a course that included black history until I got to Mount Saint Mary’s. I never learned about myself, never saw myself reflected in the curriculum. So that's driven my passions. I believe that when we uplift our most marginalized students, all of us benefit. That's the lens I look through.
Any favorite memories of the Mount?
I grew so much there. I got to be the president of clubs, speak publicly often and serve as a Student Ambassador. Opportunities that I don’t think I would have gotten at a big school, or one that didn’t focus on women’s leadership.
One of my favorite memories is of going on a legislative tour in Sacramento with Dr. (Fred) Simonelli, a longtime history professor at the Mount who passed away a few years ago. I remember it was daunting, going to the Capitol and meeting with legislative staffs. But he encouraged us to speak our minds and stand up for the issues that mattered to us.
I remember meeting with one legislator in particular, and we asked this person what the Legislature was doing for Brown and Black communities. And he said they had waived business license requirements for hair-braiders and ice cream trucks. And that was it. Well, I remember Dr. Simonelli turning to us and saying, “This is why you are here and why one of you will run against this person someday.”
Awesome, right? I’m thankful I had professors at the Mount who challenged us to think differently. They inspired me to be that type of educator for my students.