Most of Brandon Isaiah’s students have no idea he was a professional football player. Teaching started out for him as an avenue to coaching high school football, but it quickly became a way to give back to the local community he’s loved for 12 years. Now the 30-year-old athlete is an advocate for getting black male teachers in the classroom.
Not enough men are standing in front of classrooms, Isaiah said, so he takes his role as one of Walker Upper Elementary School’s only black male teachers very seriously. Sometimes, he said, being a role model is as simple as tucking in his own shirt and telling a kid to pull up his pants.
“Kids need to see someone who is, in their mind, like them,” he said. “Seeing a black man teaching shows them that education matters.”
When Isaiah graduated high school in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the school retired his football jersey. He went on to the University of Virginia as a running back, where he earned a sociology degree. After four years on a Division I team, Isaiah tried out for a couple National Football League teams, including the Buffalo Bills. He never signed with an NFL team, but played for indoor arena teams in Kansas and Florida.
Arena leagues run in the springtime, he said, which allowed him to return to Charlottesville in the fall to coach football at Charlottesville High School. For a couple of years, Isaiah was in his element: playing, coaching, living, and breathing football.
“It was hard to imagine saying I was a professional athlete,” he said, still incredulous that his childhood dream came true.
But in 2009 he took a turn mentally and professionally, and decided that he couldn’t fully invest himself as a high school coach if he was going back and forth between careers each year. He still loves playing and said he misses it, but it was time to refocus his priorities.
Isaiah knew from the beginning that if he wanted to coach, he’d have to work in the schools in other capacities as well. He’s at the end of a lengthy licensing process, which was paid for in part by the African American Teaching Fellows of Charlottesville-Albemarle. The local organization provides professional advisement, mentoring, and financial support for black teachers in the area, and Isaiah said there’s no way he’d be where he is today without the group’s help.
Despite growing up with a teaching mother and a coaching father, he said he rejected the idea of the profession for years. But Isaiah ended up taking a substitute position at Walker, which soon turned into a full-time job teaching special ed—something he openly admits he was apprehensive about.
“It was a new age group for me and I was nervous,” Isaiah said. “But I actually really enjoyed myself.”
He’s coached at Charlottesville and Albemarle high schools, and is currently at Monticello. Teaching adolescents and coaching older teenagers gives him new insight into how high schoolers end up the way they do, he said, which helps him better understand both age groups.
“How we teach them at age 10 or 11 is going to affect them in high school,” Isaiah said.