The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.

When Michelle Moye Martin walks into a kindergarten classroom, she brings enthusiasm, technical savvy, and enough disinfectant wipes to keep the tables clean.

By now, the long-term substitute teacher for the Montgomery Public School District in Maryland has adjusted to work during the pandemic. She can mobilize five-year-olds to wash their hands in record time. She can launch a virtual teaching session, if necessary. She can also handle the gasps she incites when she shares that, just weeks after her 69th birthday, she is preparing for a three-week substitute assignment this winter.

“A lot of people don’t realize how old I am because I do have a lot of energy and I have a youthful spirit,” she says. “I think it’s very important for Black children to see a Black teacher.”

Martin is part of a small wave of African American educators of traditional retirement age who are bringing their skill sets to schools in the midst of a shortage of Black teachers across the United States. Their hope is to drive greater equity in the classroom. 

According to a survey released in 2020 by the National Institute of Education Statistics, seven percent of public and private school teachers in the United States were African American in 2017 and 2018. An analysis of data shows that school districts started experiencing a decline in Black student exposure to Black educators. This is due, in part, to hiring trends by district leadership, changing demographics in school districts, and disinterest among educators. A recent study found that the number of Black teachers in Michigan, for example, dropped by 48% between 2005 and 2015.

Martin, who has worked across various fields, including banking, student affairs, and political consulting, says that support for white teachers is often disproportionate to support that Black teachers receive. This can lead educators to seek higher paid opportunities in other industries or to experience burnout.  

“A lot of teachers are overwhelmed,” Martin said. “Children today are dealing with a lot. It’s everything from homelessness, to custody issues, to family. There’s a lot of mental illness out here—family mental illness. Trauma. Fighting. Shootings. Murder.”  

Several states have introduced incentives to encourage teachers to return to classrooms to fill the gaps. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has proposed full salary and full pension specifically for retired teachers returning to the classroom. South Carolina has proposed a loan forgiveness program in some districts. Utah is offering bonuses to teachers in schools with high poverty rates. Arizona and Hawaii are considering providing housing support to teachers, as well. 

For Martin, being exposed to a rich legacy of African American educators as a child is the main reason why she is sharing her gifts in the classroom today. She was born in Harlem and attended The Modern School, which was founded in 1934 by Mildred Johnson, the daughter of composer J. Rosamond Johnson, and the niece of James Weldon Johnson, composer of the Negro National Anthem.

“I grew up learning Negro history and we were prepared to be leaders,” Martin said. 

After attending The Modern School, she was selected to help integrate Riverdale Country School for Girls in New York. She then helped integrate Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut as a student in the 1960s, and she started her career as a teacher in Washington, D.C. 

These days, she jokes that she tells her kindergartners that she is 99. It’s one way to feel younger and to help them improve their counting skills.