By: Cathy Coachman Wanza
After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people had to make new lives for themselves in a world that was new to them in some respects. For too many of them, their new lives were much like their old: working for next to nothing on someone else’s farm or plantation. Some moved North for better opportunities, but regardless of locale, it became apparent that education was the only way to truly free oneself and ensure subsequent generations of better lives. This mindset became the mantra for many African-Americans in the early to mid-20th Century.
Born in 1926, Gladys Lamb Coachman had the opportunity to attend college in 1945 because her two older sisters who were serving in the Women’s Army Corps made it possible. Upon graduation, she began working for the then-segregated Dade County Board of Public Instruction in 1949 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary in Overtown. She moved to Frederick Douglass Elementary, and in 1961 she transferred to East Opa-locka Elementary, the school for Black children in Opa-locka. It was renamed Nathan B. Young Elementary School, where she remained for the rest of her 36-year teaching career. She touched the lives of generations of families in Opa-locka through her dedication to make sure that each child learned his or her lesson and understood their value and responsibilities as human beings. She left an indelible mark on the community and was posthumously honored by the city. They created and named the Gladys L. Coachman Educational Garden built on a canal adjacent to the school, and renamed the street in front of the school as Gladys L. Coachman Place.
Elizabeth Lamb Shepherd, one of Gladys’ sisters who sent her to college, attended Tennessee State University after her military service. She began her 30+-year teaching career for The District of Columbia Public Schools in the early 1950s, teaching on both the elementary and secondary levels. Knowing the importance of reading as the foundation of all other disciplines, Elizabeth became a reading specialist whose expertise was sought district-wide and at national reading conferences.
In 1975, Gladys’ daughter, Cathy Coachman Wanza, became a high school English teacher for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where she worked for 38 years. In addition to teaching writing, grammar, literature, public speaking, and research skills, Cathy encouraged many of her students to attend college, taking several groups on tours of local colleges. While being an educator was not her initial career goal when she went to college, she fell into it serendipitously and came to realize that teaching was what she was called to do.
Following in her grandmother’s and her mother’s footsteps, Nyere Wanza became an elementary school teacher with the Miami-Dade County Public School District in 2005 and recently relocated to the Indian River School District. Becoming a teacher was Nyere’s childhood dream, and she works diligently to help give young children a solid educational foundation that will carry them through the upper grades. This aligns with her philosophy of life: “The seeds you plant determine what will grow.”
A wise person once said, “To teach is to touch the future.” These three generations of educators have impacted countless lives which have, in turn, affected the lives around them. Like ripples on the water after a stone is tossed in, a teacher’s influence is far-reaching beyond its point of initial contact.