Faculty Emeritus Jay Rogers Reflects on His Philosophy as Student and Teacher

Three years after his retirement, Jay Rogers remains popular among the Phillips Academy faculty. His interview with The Phillipian was sandwiched between quick reunions with Instructor in History Victor Henningsen ’69 and Dean of Faculty Temba Maqubela. A former member of the history department, Rogers retired in 2004 after nearly 20 years at Phillips Academy returning to his home in Durham, N.C. Rogers spoke about Phillips Academy, celebrating the students with whom he had worked closely. The students, said Rogers, are what drew him to Phillips Academy, because he knew they would make his move meaningful. Though he was careful not to reveal names, Rogers could not help but reminisce about his history classroom. He recalled one student whom he had referred to as “Mr. Brown.” Convinced that his teacher did not know his name, the student confronted Rogers about the nickname. “I know your name,” Rogers had told the student. The name “Mr. Brown,” he explained to the boy, was not in jest, but “accords you a special level of respect because of the way you carry yourself.” Rogers was alluding to Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that toppled the practice of “separate but equal” facilities in public schools. After that, Rogers said, the student wore his nickname proudly. Another student, Rogers remembered, “had a lot of mouth.” But, by not putting up with his behavior problems or letting him turn in “mediocre work,” he was able to encourage the student to put effort into class and ultimately to turn in a research paper that received a “6.” His anecdotes aptly describe Roger’s teaching philosophy. “If you expect a lot [from students],” he declared, “they deliver.” Instructor in History Derek Williams ’65, then the Chair of the History Department, had invited Rogers in 1985 for an interview. At the time, Rogers figured the call had been inspired by his résumé. In 1972, he had become the first African American to be honored with the National Teacher of the Year award. Later, he found out that Williams’ mother, who was Head of the English Department at the school at which Rogers was Head of the History Department, had recommended him. He took the job offer that followed the interview, Rogers explained, because he “had grown too comfortable [in his old position]. This presented a challenge.” Rogers said that he “didn’t know what to expect” or even “how long [he] would be here.” The challenge of adjustment was multifaceted – he would have to fit into the school and the faculty, deal with moving to the predominantly white town of Andover and overcome the differences between the North and the South. But Rogers came to Phillips Academy with his priorities in order, prepared to incorporate the “Southern experience” into his teaching. Rogers grew up in South Carolina, segregated at the time, and his experience as an African American in this singular environment, rampant with racism and poverty, defined him, he said. As a kid, Rogers said, he would wonder “what is it that keeps [white people] from sitting down with me [in public] when they had black people in their homes as cooks and maids?” But race, Rogers alleged, “is a social construct.” Because “it’s not natural…to exert power over people,” he believes that racism and the idea of race and racism should be destroyed. The role of poverty in education also had enormous impact in Rogers’ path to teaching. With six children to support, his parents could not afford to send Jay Rogers to college. Only determination compelled him to go to school instead of to the tobacco factory where his father worked, and where Rogers could have earned wages to increase his family’s meager income. Later in his life, Rogers worked with underprivileged students who had dropped out of school because of their destitution. His time teaching the dropouts in the mountains of North Carolina as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” encouraged Rogers to become a teacher. Kids, Rogers said, need to be given a second opportunity. So he went back to school, earned a Masters degree in History and entered teaching. Rogers has never regretted it. “I’ve enjoyed teaching, period,” he said. “It has been one of the most exciting [ventures in my life].” In 2004, Elwin Sykes, Instructor in English, wrote a piece in the Andover Bulletin documenting Rogers’ life and commemorating his years at Andover. Sykes referenced many of Rogers’ accomplishments outside of teaching. He wrote, “An Air Force officer, a deputy director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a goodwill ambassador to the Middle East for the State Department and a guest of the Hanoi government via the American Friends Service Committee, Jay has been a responsible citizen of the world, loyal to his country and to his people.” Rogers spent nine years teaching at Gaston College, a two-year college in North Carolina, and also taught at a public high school before coming to teach at Phillips Academy. “They were good,” Rogers said of the students in his AP-level classes at the public high school. But he had come to Andover to raise awareness of African-American history among its intellectual student body, he said. Rogers also worked as the complementary house counselor to Tucker House, becoming “almost [the boys’] surrogate father,” he said. Though Rogers has retired from teaching at Phillips Academy, he has not retired from teaching. For the past three years, he has been a consultant in diversity, holding teacher workshops for new teachers and making speeches about race relations. Rogers was on campus on January 21 to conduct a Martin Luther King Jr. Day workshop about the current state of race relations in the United States.