This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Jerriel Hall was in the 8th grade, his English Language Arts teacher told him and some of his classmates that they would never make it to high school, let alone college, because they were black. In that moment, 13-year-old Hall decided he would become a teacher.
“That was when I decided that I didn’t want any other children, especially children of color, to hear those words,” he said.
Today, Hall teaches 5th-grade science, English Language Arts, and writing to a homeroom class of 31 students at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory School. He has been a teacher for 10 years, including earlier stints in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
At the end of last month, Hall received the National University System’s inaugural Sanford Teacher Award for Pennsylvania, which included a $10,000 cash prize.
“We believe that often teachers are not recognized and are pretty much the unsung heroes within our educational system, and we want to continue honoring them,” said Sid Salazar, the senior director for the program.
Hall did not know he was in the running for the award until he received a notification, and he later discovered that a former student had nominated him.
In addition to the Sanford award, Hall received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching that sent him to Ghana for two months over the summer, where he trained science and math teachers and taught at a school in the town of Dodowa. Since returning to the United States, he has kept in contact with teachers from his host school and has been organizing Skype sessions between his students at KIPP and their peers in Ghana.
“My students get the beauty of seeing that culture and getting to understand there’s something greater outside of Philly, and now I have little 10- and 11-year-olds who are interested in seeing the world,” Hall said. “This is the first time children of African heritage or descent get to interact face-to-face, virtually, and see what it is like being a teenager or a preteen in Ghana, so they get to exchange cultural ideas.”
Hall said one of the issues he has noticed as a teacher is that his students, mostly racial minorities, “don’t always get to see themselves reflected … throughout the building or on the walls or in the curriculum.” His efforts to correct that at KIPP are evident: Photographs of Stacey Abrams, the 2018 candidate for Georgia governor; Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space; and Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana, adorn the walls of his classroom, alongside words like integrity, gratitude, and zest.
“I’ve never shied away from being pro-feminist or being pro-black or being pro-Hispanic in my classroom,” he said, “and being open and receptive to all cultures, and trying to make sure that every child, no matter who they are, feel that they are valued, affirmed, and challenged.”
Hall’s commitment to boosting minority student achievement began when he was still a student himself. He attended high school in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where he often was one of the few, if not the only, black student in AP and honors classes. In response, he helped establish the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars Program to raise awareness and improve resources for black male students in his school, a program that remains active today.
“[It was] also just a brotherhood to help support our fellow brothers in the school that may have been struggling either academically or socially or emotionally,” Hall said.
For Hall, whose track record includes his students achieving some of the highest double-digit gains in a state science test in his school’s history, building relationships and trust between teacher and student must come before everything else. To encourage his students, he does “little things” like going to school football games, sharing motivational messages in the mornings before class, and writing messages in their agendas “to make them smile.”
He also enjoys dancing and playing the game Uno with his students during recess and chatting with them about everything from Pan-Africanism to their favorite “Philly club songs.” Above all, he wants to make sure to “never allow them to hear the worst that I heard as an 8th grader.”
“These 10- and 11-year-olds need to have those positive affirmations with them every day and know that they mean a lot to not only me and their families and their community, but that they will one day go off and change the world and be amazing, and so hopefully they take that with them and carry that with them.”
Naomi Elegant is a Notebook intern.