Ricca Dickens grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and attended Sewanee, where she majored in American Studies and minored in education. She is now in her third year of teaching 7th grade writing at YES Prep Northside and will graduate with her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas-Arlington in May. We interviewed her about her path to YES Prep, her passion for teaching, and Excuse My FRO, a group for Black girls on campus to embrace, celebrate, and explore their identity.
What was your path to YES Prep?
I was the first in my family to go to college, and my first semester was rough. I struggled academically and wasn’t used to the rigor. But my teachers had done a good job preparing me to advocate for myself. I’d learned how to utilize resources and ask for help. I also got involved in a lot of activities, which is how I learned about YES. I worked in admissions, giving tours, doing student panels, and interviewing seniors. I was doing a panel when I first came into contact with YES Prep. The kids were visiting campus, and they were amazing. I applied to be a campus recruitment coordinator (recruiting Sewanee students to teach at YES). So, the summer before my senior year, I came down to Houston and went to the school year kickoff. I talked to teachers and learned so much about YES. I felt really connected to YES because they provide an opportunity for all students and families to learn and get resources.
After you worked as a campus recruitment coordinator, why did you apply to teach at YES?
I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know how to become a teacher. I knew that it was more than majoring in college or just starting to sub/work as an assistant. I was wondering, how can I graduate in May and be in the classroom by August? YES Prep’s Teaching Excellence was the answer. They’d provide training, certification, and all the support I’d need for my first year. It was the perfect opportunity for me to enter the profession I knew I’d love.
Why were you so passionate about teaching?
I had a traumatic experience with a teacher when I was little. I didn’t like school after that– until 5th grade, when I had Ms. Turner. She was so passionate about math and would teach us cool tricks to help us remember things. Then, in 6th grade, I had a science teacher named Mrs. Pirtle. It was so amazing for me to see Black women in STEM fields. We did cool projects, went to Rhodes College to build robots, and even went to space camp for a week. They knew that my family didn’t have a lot of money, but they worked to make sure that money didn’t stop me from having these educational experiences. I didn’t grow up seeing lawyers and doctors. But I did see amazing teachers who made a difference in people’s lives and made children smile. My teachers provided a space where I could freely explore my identity and express myself. I knew that if I became I teacher, I’d create the foundation for my students to go into the world and become who they dream of being.
Tell us about your student group, Excuse My FRO.
On surveys, Black girls expressed that they were not feeling as much of a sense of belonging as our other students. It was alarming to me. So I worked with other Black women on campus to create Excuse My FRO. Our mission is to create a safe space for students and staff to celebrate, embrace, and explore our culture. The first semester, we did vision boards, played games, had a sleepover, and did a mini-book study on Pushout, a book by Monique Morris about the criminalization of Black girls in schools. It was helpful for the girls to see that they weren’t the only people going through certain things. It’s happening nationally.
What has been your favorite YES Prep experience thus far?
I was so nervous for the first meeting of Excuse My FRO. I knew some of my colleagues were coming, but I was afraid no girls would come. That afternoon, I returned from bus duty, and the room was packed with all these smiling faces. We started doing introductions, and when our Director of Academics introduced herself, they clapped like “Sister, we see you.” It is so important for them to see women who look like them in leadership and in different positions around campus. The moment felt so good and right.
What advice do you have for someone who is considering teaching as a career?
Take some time to think about your purpose and why you want to teach. It is an incredibly difficult job, and it doesn’t just require training, it also requires passion, empathy, and humility. Sometimes, you will need to ask for help. Be willing to try new things. Be receptive to feedback.