Alexis Lanham Shepard ’12 didn’t intend to be a teacher. She stumbled upon the Teacher Cadet Program as a high school senior – more to develop leadership skills and build a college resume than to explore education as a career.
Positive feedback from the program’s teachers slowly changed her mind. They told her that she had natural gifts for teaching and should pursue them. Just more than four years later, she joined the teaching ranks.
Alexis also didn’t plan to attend Clemson University. The daughter of two faculty members, she grew up in the shadow of the University. Clemson was in her backyard, and she wanted to stretch her wings “beyond these hills.”
But during the fall of her high school senior year, she attended a black Greek life event on campus with her mother, a faculty advisor for the University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter. While she had participated in these events for years, she saw the community and student camaraderie with fresh eyes. A few months later, she was on campus, attending her first class as an elementary education major.
Educational policy was never on Alexis’ radar, either. Then she took a class in the College of Education that explored weighty topics such as charter schools and the black-white achievement gap.
“It was the first inclination I had that I could effect change in education beyond helping students in their academic preparation,” she said. “I was eager to soak up every discussion.” A passion was born.
Alexis’ life and career may have taken unexpected turns, but they have joined together to form a path she is traveling with great intention: teacher self-care advocacy.
A former elementary school teacher and current English language arts teacher at Seneca (S.C.) Middle School, Alexis is the creator of The AfroEducator, a platform that promotes teacher wellness through self-care education, reflection and authentic exchanges. The platform includes a social media presence, conference speaking engagements, podcast appearances and professional development leadership. The platform’s name pays homage to her African roots and her desire to help educators – and everyone – learn how to live their best lives.
The Battle for Teacher Self-Care
The AfroEducator platform came about after Alexis’ own battle with teacher self-care. While she was fortunate in many of her teaching experiences – including the guidance of a mentor during her first year in the classroom – she struggled over time with the weight of the job. She almost abandoned her career, going so far as to apply for other non-teaching jobs.
After a conversation with a friend, Alexis realized that her struggle was partially due to her own self-limiting beliefs on what it took to teach well. So she returned to the classroom with the resolve to invest in herself while investing in her students. She set two goals: to attend a non-required, non-local professional development event and create a professional Twitter account. These steps, intended to connect her with fellow educators, quickly led to her work as The AfroEducator.
According to Alexis, the platform involves reframing the “good teacher narrative” – the commonly held notion that teachers facing mounting expectations and pressures must be exceedingly self-sacrificial to be successful.
“The ‘good teacher narrative’ tells teachers that the further you go, the later you work and the more you sacrifice, the better teacher you’ll be,” she said. “It also sets up the false assumption that if teachers take care of themselves, their students will lose and their communities will suffer.”
This narrative, Alexis contends, is a reason why many teachers leave the profession – with real consequences for schools in South Carolina and beyond. According to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, approximately 6,000 South Carolina public school teachers from 2019-2020 did not return to a position in the same district in 2020-2021. About 700 teaching/service positions were still vacant at the beginning of 2020-2021, a 26% increase from the previous year.
As The AfroEducator, Alexis facilities dialogue to address teacher burnout and retention. For teachers, she educates them about the importance of setting reasonable boundaries – actions as simple as adhering to set office hours and saying a respectful “no” when their plates get too full.
“I try to paint a new perspective that it’s not so much saying ‘no’ but allowing space for saying ‘yes’ to something else,” she said.
Alexis’ intended audience for teacher self-care advocacy isn’t limited to teachers. She encourages administrators to create conversations in their schools and school systems about teacher wellness – framing it not as a temporary self-indulgence but a lasting network of care and attention that creates a “life teachers don’t need a break from,” she said. Ideas for implementation could include creating faculty-staff wellness committees, developing wellness plans, organizing meetings to maximize teachers’ planning time, or encouraging the systematic use of personal days.
When teacher wellness is preserved with these kinds of measures, Alexis says, everyone benefits – especially the next generation of learners. “When wellness is prioritized, teachers experience greater happiness and connection – and do even more for their students and families,” she said.
Alexis also takes the message of The AfroEducator to her classroom – modeling self-care to her students and helping them see that teachers are humans. “I try to help them understand that I’m not a superhero – that I have the same needs and issues as anyone else,” she said.
The Power of Prose and Presence
As an English language arts teacher, Alexis is also committed to demonstrating the power of words to her students, encouraging them to use writing as a tool to express themselves and explore the world unfolding before them. Her classroom combines social studies and English, which allows students to engage in conversations, written and oral, about important issues. In the process, Alexis helps students hone their writing and language skills.
“Expression is the goal – not perfection but progress,” she said, referencing her practice of reviewing student writing samples throughout the year so they see their development.
Alexis also recognizes that her influence extends beyond teaching to her presence as a Black female in the classroom. “I am acutely aware that I may be the first person of color that some students have had the opportunity to know,” she said. “I also realize that it is important to be a role model for students who look like me.”
She says that being in such a position can feel weighty. Still, she values the opportunity it affords, whether it is engaging conversations about race and culture or conveying who she is with authenticity so students realize they can, too.
“What I value most is the influence that is subconscious, that you don’t even realize is happening,” she said.
More about Alexis
Alexis comes from a family of Tigers – she, her parents, and her brother are all Clemson alumni. Her parents, Drew Lanham Ph.D. ’97 and Janice Garrison Lanham ’88 M ’94, are Clemson faculty members in wildlife ecology and nursing. Her brother, Colby Lanham ’16 M ’18, is a communication strategist for the University. Her husband, Aaron Shepard, is completing his second degree in electrical engineering at Clemson. They live in Pendleton.
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