This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The typical person is lucky to discover a life’s passion after years of schooling and working. Desmond Kirton found his at the age of 10, when he picked up a pair of hair clippers.
Since then, this South Philadelphia native has been his neighborhood’s barber. He has owned his own barbershop for seven years and has managed another. Now 38, he teaches at Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School, where he is the only barbering teacher in the District.
“Cutting hair has been my life,” said Kirton, who said he grew his clientele while still a student at South Philadelphia High and received his license in 2002.
Kirton was appointed chairman of Dobbins’ Barbering Occupational Advisory Committee in 2011 after volunteering in the classroom, and he became a full-time teacher in 2012.
“I love being at Dobbins because we prepare kids for both college and career,” he said. “I like presenting these two opportunities for our students.”
Once barbering students reach 1,250 credit hours, they can take the licensing exam, which is part theory and part practical. Besides skills such as how to cut and how to give a facial massage, students learn aspects of chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, he said. The class integrates language arts, as students are responsible for learning barbering vocabulary and the names of techniques. And for mathematics, they need to know what kind of angle will allow for what kind of cut.
Kirton said he gets their attention by teaching them “how to stand out and be competitive and figure out what makes them different.” He also spends a lot of time getting his students to be invested in their own education by having them think about whether they want to be a liability or an asset in the future.
That is why his class is better than a simple apprenticeship; he works on motivation, character and human relations as well as cutting hair, he said.
“In my class, we get hands-on. Doing an apprenticeship in the shop, they just give you a book, and you’re going to need luck passing your theory exam,” he said.
He also teaches his students to care about their customers and not “just treat them like money. I tell my students that if they treat people like people, the money will always be there. There’s integrity associated with being a barber. We need to be professional and prepared.”
Businesswise, barbering is more insulated than other trades from economic recessions — “there’s hair everywhere,” he points out – and can provide a path to stability and independence. “Entrepreneurship is in our blood. I want my students to know that they don’t have to stay working for someone else.”
In the Dobbins program, students cut each others’ hair and charge others in the building $5 for a haircut.
Being a new CTE teacher also means being a part-time student. Kirton, who joined the military after high school instead of going to college, takes education courses at Temple to fulfill his teaching certification requirements.
“This has been a challenge, because we have no support from the District to pay these classes off. And I feel like I can lose my job at any moment if I don’t get my certification.”
The classes teach him how to write lesson plans and manage a classroom.
“Still being in the industry is a major advantage,” said Kirton. Since becoming a full-time teacher, Kirton has placed nearly 30 of his students into hair shops across the city each summer to work.
Kirton spends time recruiting middle school students and pitching his program and he makes special outreach to females. There are eight in his program.
Kirton is a 2015 recipient of the Lindback Award, given to teachers for promoting both intellectual development and character development in their students.
“I want to stay in the classroom because I know how influential a barber is in the community,” he said. “I am trying to effect change in my students and in the industry.”