Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Learning from someone who "gets it": Salome Thomas-El

--> Like many before me, my first few months in the classroom were a struggle… to say the least.  Also like many others, I turned to Amazon to find the “magic book” that would surely hold the answers to all of my struggles.  While there are many fine teaching texts out there (and many useless ones too… I’m looking at you “Dr” Ruby Payne), I’m sad to report that there is no such magic book.  In this search, however, I did stumble upon a great text that gave me some perspective and insight that certainly helped along my journey: I Chose to Stay by Salome Thomas-El.  

His first book recounts his journey from a kid in North Philadelphia to a young man at East Stroudsburg University and ultimately into the classroom as a teacher right back in North Philly.  He offers frank discussion of his struggles and successes.  Further, he engages the choice that many teachers face, that is, to stay in the incredibly challenging urban environment or head for a more stable (though certainly not “easy”) position in another district. His book gave me hope and solace when I found myself questioning my resolve. 

Of course, the point of this post isn’t just to push Principal El’s book.  There is another layer to the story. 

I began to follow Principal El on Twitter a few months ago and have communicated with him once or twice.  On Sunday, I saw that he was speaking at the Chestnut Hill Book Festival and I tweeted him a message that I’d try to make it if I got my grading done.  I didn’t, but I went anyway. 

To give you an idea what kind of man he is, allow me to recount what happened when I walked in the door (a few minutes late…)
            TeacherMan creeps in and slides into a seat. 
            Principal El stops his speech and walks over to me.  “You’re TeacherMan right?”
            “I’m really glad you got all your work done and were able to make it. Let’s talk after”

In this moment, I realized why it’s so important to recognize our students. To say hello in the morning. To “catch them doing good”.  It feels really good to be acknowledged.
At any rate, Principal El went on to give a great talk about his vision for schools.  What made it so great is that it was free of jargon and rhetoric.  He spoke about core beliefs.  Challenging students, but supporting them to meet those challenges.  Recognizing them for their successes, no matter how small.  Supporting teachers so that they can learn from one another and aren’t afraid to innovate and try new things. 

Above all else, Principal El said that all students deserve to have at least one adult associated with school who is crazy about them.  That is how we keep kids in school and ensure their success. It doesn’t matter if it’s a teacher, principal, secretary, coach, custodian, aide, counselor, or whoever else.  When students think of school, at least one adult needs to come to mind that that student can count on. 

Of course, this message is a little corny; especially coming off “real” education issues like the CTU strike, corporate reforms, and all the other foolishness that’s going on in schools today.  But the reality is that creating successful schools begins and ends with genuinely and wholeheartedly caring about the welfare and success of students. Of course, that’s ALL students, not just those who make the school look good or who sit quietly or who gain high scores on absurd bubble tests. 

Though Principal El now oversees a charter school in Wilmington, Delaware, he certainly does not see public schools as the enemy or inferior.  He explained that all students deserve a strong education, whether it’s a public or charter school.  But that school must be fair and equitable.  Corporate charters who are primarily concerned with the bottom line and, as a result, “cream” their populations through transfers, “zero-tolerance”, and counseling sessions are not equitable and ultimately hurt the whole system. 

I hung around after the talk and had a great conversation with Principal El about my program. More than anything, he listened and asked questions. He asked about the challenges I faced. How I supported the students and what successes I’d found.  Before we left (our conversation was cut short after 20 minutes when the venue was closing), he asked if it would be ok if he came and spoke with some of my students. I told him that he was more than welcome and I intend to hold him to that.    

This whole experience left me energized and heartened, knowing that there are folks out there in public schools and charter schools alike who see the bigger picture.  They see beyond the rhetoric, jargon, and politics.  At the end of the day, there are millions of kids who need an education, but more than that, they need support. 

I have certainly kept this experience in mind as my students cussed me out and carried on this week.  With progress reports looming, it’s already been an explosive week and it’s only Tuesday… in urban schools you have to savor the positives. 

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