Eriece Colbert didn’t plan to become a teacher. In fact, it was an accident.
“I grew up in central Illinois, and we would drive past a Dow Chemical plant and I always wanted to work there,” explains Colbert. While in college, she was heading to a meeting for young chemists, but accidentally sat down in a student National Education Association meeting.
“Because I was a little embarrassed that I ended up in the wrong meeting, I stayed,” she says. “I listened to what they were talking about, they got me thinking about the teachers who I really liked and admired. The next day I went and changed my major.”
One of the teachers Colbert thought about during the meeting was Carol Rancifer Gearring. She led Project Challenge, a Chicago-based program that prepares African American students for college.
“This was a unique program and it didn’t exist through the school system, and she got grants for it,” explains Colbert. “I realized that she did all that to advance other people’s children. And she saw potential and talent, and I thought I’d like to be able to do that and have that kind of influence. She was the first person to help me take risks and not be afraid to do so.”
Through the high school program, Colbert had nearly enough credits for an associate degree. After completing college, she landed in Cedar Rapids and has been a teacher in the district for 28 years, currently as an instructional coach at Franklin Middle School. She has kept the lessons she learned from Gearring at the forefront of her teaching and relationships with students.
“I feel like that’s something I took away from Mrs. Gearring, that need to look for potential and untapped talent, and get involved,” Colbert explains. “That’s the role I’ve transitioned into—seeing opportunity that maybe our students can’t, and I talk to them about taking risks.”
Colbert has taken that drive to support students to another level. She is serving in two elected positions: a second term as vice president of the Cedar Rapids Educational Association and a first term as president of the Cedarwood UniServ Unit, which is the regional union that represents Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids Community School District, Cedar Rapids teacher associates, and the Grant Wood Area Education Association. She is the first Black person to hold leadership roles in both organizations.
“When I ran, I ran mostly because I see lots of students who look like me, but then I looked at our union leadership and there was no one like me,” says Colbert. “When I look at a lot of the work we do, it’s around the lens of racial and social justice, and yet we’re not present. It felt like something to do, something to try, and another way to be seen.”
Colbert has a message for young people in the district.
“When I look at our young people and I say that ‘we see you,’ we see you speaking up in ways that we weren’t equipped to do at your age. I love seeing our students be brave, be bold, take those risks,” she says. “I’m excited to see our students advocating. Every time you hear a ‘no,’ consider that as another way to go ‘how can I do this differently; how can I continue to push my message.”