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Online June 2014 | Volume 71
Making a Difference
Salome Thomas-EL has spent his life making a difference for kids in high-poverty schools in Philadelphia, as a teacher and principal. He inspires students through chess (the Vaux Middle School chess teams he coached were eight-time National Chess Champions) and through his own story: Raised by a single mother in Philadelphia's housing projects, he became an award-winning educator. He is author of I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City (Kensington, 2003) and The Immortality of Influence (Kensington, 2010) and is a regular contributor on The Dr. Oz Show.
You've said you still hear the voices of teachers who encouraged you. Do you think teachers have a unique influence on how young people see their life possibilities?
I do. I often say teachers are "saving Private Ryan" every day. I see students in the schools where I work who hang on every word a teacher says. That influence is so powerful because for many students, that teacher becomes their mother, their father, their counselor, their nutritionist, their life coach.
Many young people are the first in their families to have an opportunity to get a college education. It's very powerful for a teacher to be open with a young person and say, "I made mistakes. I lived a tough life, but look where I am now. You can grow up and become even more than I am." Just living your life in such a way that students understand when you say, "You can be me because I was once you."
You grew up in tough circumstances. What did teachers say or do for you that helped you believe you could achieve whatever you wanted to?
It might have been more about what teachers didn't say to me. I don't remember many teachers allowing me to believe that I was gifted or that I had reached my potential. We're learning so much now about the growth mind-set and fixed mind-set, but 40 years ago, teachers I had in elementary, middle, and high school knew that if young people didn't understand that failure was part of becoming successful, they would become complacent.
I would often complain to my mother, "These teachers, they just push me, like I can never make them happy." Now I understand what it was: They wanted me to avoid that fixed mind-set.
Powerful educators like Marsha Pincus—my high school English teacher—and others taught me that I could make a difference. Marsha Pincus taught me to love Shakespeare and Chaucer. When she went out on maternity leave, the substitute was trying to teach a lesson on literature, and the students were giving the sub a tough time. So I said, "Can I help teach the lesson?" I loved literature so much that I wanted the teacher to get through this lesson.
I wrote Marsha Pincus a letter from college and told her that I'd enrolled in an advanced literature course. None of my friends wanted to take this course, but I was thinking Ms. Pincus would be upset with me if I didn't take it. She told me later that she kept that letter because up until that point, she never thought she was a good teacher. She was a young white teacher in a high school in a tough neighborhood who didn't really know if she was making a difference.
I'm the only one of my mother's eight children to graduate from college. Teachers would ask me why some of my older brothers and sisters weren't as successful in school. They'd say, "You have the ability to go on and do things in life and come back and make sure other families don't end up in the same situation."
I didn't realize it, but that was a call to become a teacher. My goal was to become a sportscaster, but getting that call to become a teacher was the most important moment in my life. Even in college, when I talked about wanting to be an attorney, a professor showed me data on the number of lawyers in the country. He said, "I want you to make a difference; think about becoming a teacher."
After I graduated from college, I was working for a sports cable channel. I went to a school to talk to students at career day, and they said to me," If you can come in and motivate us, how come you aren't a teacher?" Those young people were teaching me that I had become the kind of person that I complained about—someone who made it out of the community, was successful, but didn't come back to do anything to help change the community.
So I quit my TV job and got a certificate to teach. I spent the next 10 years working in a middle school in a very tough neighborhood. We lost almost 20 kids under the age of 18 to murder, many of them from our school. I said to myself, I've got to find a way to teach children that although they can choose the behavior, they cannot choose the consequences. That's why I started teaching students to play chess.
What skills do students get from learning chess? Is chess particularly helpful for kids from poor, urban neighborhoods?
Students who play chess are critical thinkers, problem solvers. It teaches you to think two, three, four moves ahead. Chess gives students the ability to make great decisions at crucial moments. A child who lives in a tough neighborhood has to make life-changing decisions every day in terms of what they do. They must always be aware of the friends they associate with or what streets to walk down at night, for example.
Learning chess can also give students intellectual capital. The students I taught to play chess started beating me, started beating the other teachers, and then all the kids wanted to play chess. They learned that smart is not something you are; it's something you can become.
Chess is very mathematical. In my first teaching job, with middle school students, I started using chess to teach mathematics. Now I have 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders writing their chess moves in algebraic notation. Those children are very good thinkers. If we want to be innovative, we need to make sure there's a chess program in every school in the world.
You've said discipline was the most important thing you taught. How can we provide discipline that makes a difference?
Discipline is a form of love. There are ways to discipline children with dignity that enable them to still feel good about themselves, to continue to be proud of their accomplishments, but also to understand that they've made a mistake and need to take responsibility.
Some students are not accustomed to discipline, so when you discipline them, they feel that's not the norm. Their reactions can be violent or disrespectful. But that's the only thing they know; their reaction is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We have to be careful about how we deliver discipline because they may not be ready for it.
Once I had a student in my office with his mother. He was giving teachers problems, didn't want to do homework and those kinds of things. Clearly, he didn't show much respect in the way he was treating his mom, the way he was talking to her. I asked his mother if I could talk to the young man by himself.
I talked to him about my own life growing up with a single mom and how sometimes we can forget how lucky we are to have people in our lives. We get upset about the people who are not there. I could see this boy was upset that his father wasn't there for him—and later he confirmed that. I told him, "Think about the people who are there for you."
This was a kid who would play basketball with me and other teachers in the evening. If we had events on the weekend, we would invite him and help him get there. So I said, "I don't think it's fair that you treat your mom in that way and then we take you to these events and give you special treatment. Your parent is very important."
He was homeless, so I had to be very careful and loving about the way I presented it to him. But I knew this was going to be one of my only shots to send a message to this young man, because if it's his mom today, would it be his college professor soon, or someone who says, "Hey, you're going to lose your scholarship"? I didn't want him to become an adult—a professional—and then lose whatever he had because of the way he treated people.
And the young man responded to the call to be a better person. He became more respectful in school and at home. His mother saw tremendous change, even in the way he helped out with the family, being the oldest. He sort of became the father who wasn't there.
Many young people are being raised in an environment where there isn't structure. Students want structure, they want guidance, and they want you to be firm with them. They just don't know how to reach out for it. And they don't want the other young people to know they enjoy structure. Students never complain to me about the fact that there's too much structure in a class, but they'll come and say, "Oh, Principal, that class is out of control."
You're called a "turnaround principal" at Thomas Edison Charter School. What can a principal do to make a difference in a troubled school?
If you want to move a school in a different direction, first you have to change the culture of the school. And to change the culture, you have to be willing to accept the role as the prime facilitator of school culture. That means the relationships that you want teachers to develop with students need to be reflected in the relationships you develop with teachers. Treat those teachers with respect. Give them a leadership role in the school.
Second, the principal has to be passionate about his or her work and be able to ignite the building with excitement around education. And to make school fun. Two things you want students to experience every day in school are rigor and joy.
Third, administrators have to be excellent models of leadership. That's why I cover classes. When my math teacher went to Kuwait for two weeks, I taught the class. Those students could see that I valued their learning so much that I would spend time with them every day until that teacher returned.
Principals have to be smart enough to know that the people who are in the school are the exact people you need to get the job done. You don't need to go outside and look for experts; most schools have right within the building the people they need. When I go into a school to turn it around, I don't get rid of everybody because we have to respect the history in the school. We have to respect the legacy.
My mother taught me that arrogance is the Achilles heel of the school leader. She told me, if you want to be a successful principal, make sure you listen to the old ladies in the building, those teachers who've been there for principal after principal. They're teaching the children of the children they taught, and they know what it takes for schools to be successful. That has worked for me for 15 years!
It's important for students to be in a school where teachers are resilient. We often talk about resilient students, but we also need resilient teachers who are able to overcome obstacles early in their careers because many of their students will depend on them to be there for them, some of them for a lifetime.
I had a teacher in my office crying today because she got a phone call from a tough parent. I was trying to get the teacher to understand that the parent's frustration was about not finding successful ways to help her own child. But many times parents communicate that in a way that blames the teacher. Once the teacher understood where the parent's defensiveness was coming from, she could see it wasn't really about her ability as a teacher. It was about needing to find a way to help the parent as well.
You've sometimes given students material help. For instance, when a student's house burned down, you collected money so her family could stay in a hotel. What is the school's role when students face material deprivation?
The school belongs to the community. So whenever there's a family in need—whether there's a fire in the home or the family is homeless—the school has some responsibility. I'm very careful to say some responsibility because I don't want schools to think it's their job to take care of families. And I don't want families to believe it's the school's responsibility to do that; I don't want parents to move away from caring for their children. I've seen examples where the school offered so much support that we began to see family caregivers back away. We want to support families to support their children. But I believe we have a responsibility as citizens, as educators, to make sure that students' basic needs are met so they can come to school and be successful.
That young lady whose family I helped when their house burned down still contacts me today. She's graduated from college, she's a professional, and we have a bond because at a crucial point in her family's life, I took any resources I could find to help her family.
We must make sure that we're helping to develop the whole child. Academically things may be great, but what's going on outside school? What are your needs, and how can we connect you to services to help you become better equipped to succeed?
Students in difficult circumstances sometimes won't ask for help, or will even resist it. How can teachers reach out if a student seems resistant?
Many young people are very guarded about their emotions. They don't let you in right away. Many of them opened up to adults when they were younger, and the adults either took advantage of them emotionally or physically or just weren't there. So many young people have adults that come in and out of their lives that the teacher is the only person who's caring and offering healthy love—notice I said healthy love—consistently.
I tell teachers that persistence overcomes resistance. They'll complain that they're having a hard time getting to know a kid. I'll say, keep trying the key; one day you'll have the right key. Don't give up. I often suggest that teachers go to the neighborhood playground or the Laundromat—go to where those students are comfortable in their own communities. If it's not safe for them to go alone, I'll go with them. Students will often say, "Man, last night Principal Thomas-EL did a drive-by!"
As we keep persisting, there's a reverse influence in which students influence us in a very powerful way. They teach us to have humility; they teach us to really teach with care and passion and love because they choose to be with us. They make the choice to be under our influence.
What's the most important thing a teacher can do to convince a child, "I believe in you."
That's the crucial question every teacher will have to address at some point. The first thing a teacher must do is develop a relationship with that child so he or she understands that you will be there for him—no matter what, you'll be there tomorrow. That's why teacher retention is so important. Successful schools have teachers who are there every year, principals who are there every year. That doesn't mean 35 or 40 years, but you need to be there more than a year or two for young people to know that you will be part of their lives.
Make sure the student you're trying to reach has meaningful participation in school. Students need to feel they matter in the classroom. You can't allow a kid to hide. Even if you think he's going to answer the question wrong, still ask the question because struggling is learning.
Teachers need to share with students about their own lives. Many young people have this belief that teachers are born on some other planet, that we came down on a spaceship and never had to deal with any struggles. Children need to know that we're human beings and we have feelings. When they look at us, they should see themselves.
I have white teachers who will say, "How do I get a black kid or a Latino kid to understand that although I may not look like them, I'm here for them?" I say, "The only thing you need to do is tell that student, 'I will be here tomorrow—and although I may look different, my heart is the same and my heart is here to teach you.'"
Finally, it's more important for students to respect you than to like you. We all want students to like us, but students can like you and not do the work you assign. You want students to like being in your presence, but you should never sacrifice respect. It's difficult to teach anyone anything if they don't respect you or don't love you. I tell my teachers to adopt the philosophy that they love their students before they ever meet them. When you care about someone, you can teach them anything.
Salome Thomas-EL is principal of Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware. Naomi Thiers is an associate editor at Educational Leadership.
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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