Maybe it was the headlines about our black boys that consumed my TV screen and social media feeds. Maybe it was the plight and obstacles I saw before my own five sons, or the countless number of individuals I witnessed cycle through the justice system with no viable future in sight.
I was tired of the arrests of black and brown boys. In all cases, I believed the lever of change was education. After a rewarding 19-year career in victim advocacy in the District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, I resigned to move my family to Delaware to work for Teach for America. I wanted to teach. A good friend of mine had shared with me the impact he was having with his students as an English teacher after he left his long career in federal law enforcement; I was inspired by his story.
In August 2015, I started my new career as a math teacher at Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington. With math, I am able to change lives. I give my kids frequent opportunities to manipulate mathematics and articulate their findings of infinite and absolute possibilities. I neither make nor allow excuses.
When I had Jessica* as a 6th grader, she’d write me letters describing how much she used to hate math. She’d had negative experiences in previous grades that led her to believe that she’d never be a strong math student. When she first entered my classroom, she was several years below grade level. She also was not a native English speaker, which she described as making her feel different and left out. By the end of 6th grade, however, Jessica was performing at grade level and demonstrating leadership in class by clearly articulating tough concepts.
I recently received another letter from her where she describes her acceptance to AVID, a program that develops students in the ‘academic middle’ into competitive college applicants. “I never forget about you,” she wrote, “And will never.” She writes that she’s going to graduate high school and head to Harvard, where she’ll eventually study to become a lawyer. “I want to make a HUGE difference in the world.” I know she will.
My students’ belief in me inspires me to continue to learn to be a stronger educator. My official commitment with Teach for America has ended, but I continue to strive to be a committed advocate and change agent for my students. While it’s powerful to witness the transformations, my students undergo at school, it’s clear that I am the one impacted in ways I never imagined. “Keep doing your thing, sir!” Jessica wrote in one of her letters. I will.
* Student’s name has been changed to protect her identity.