This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
These four new teachers are among the nearly 700 teachers and counselors hired by the District this year. They were interviewed at the week-long teacher induction session in early August, where they attended workshops on subjects ranging from how to organize a gradebook culturally to relevant teaching.
“We balance transactional nuts and bolts with bigger issues,” explained Meredith Mehra, deputy chief in the District’s Office of Teaching and Learning. Induction support and activities are available for the entire year, and new teachers each are assigned a mentor to help them make it through their crucial and often difficult first year.
Mike Jones grew up in Camden – South Camden, to be exact. This is his first experience as a teacher, although he has worked in Urban Promise ministries, a program that focuses on helping young people in Camden with skills needed for academic achievement and life management, according to its website.
“I started with them at age 13 after school and in the summer and worked my way up to assistant director,” he said.
Photo by Dale Mezzacappa
His original degree was in business management and marketing from Eastern University. “I have an intensive background in different jobs,” he said. “But what led me here was my background at Urban Promise.”
Jones said the teacher orientation gave him a lot of insight “on how to compose yourself as a teacher and a mentor for children who have a background and a culture we have nothing comparable to.”
When he decided to get his teaching certification, he went back to Eastern University.
Philadelphia “was the only district that gave me an opportunity,” he said. “I spent four years getting a bachelor’s degree I do not need, until an angel heard me and said enough of that, here’s an opportunity, either take it or leave it.”
He will be teaching at William McKinley Elementary at Fifth and Diamond Streets.
Although Jones grew up in Camden, one of the country’s poorest cities, “a lot of things that kids have experienced today, I didn’t experience at all. Everything my parents and grandparents taught me to do was to keep me on the right path. Even the mentors I had in school [taught me to be] a gentleman, be successful, and a mentor to myself and others. Just coming into the different workplaces I’ve had, listening to other people’s issues and problems, I never went through that when I was younger.”
The different things that many Philadelphia students experience in their lives, he said – “death, drugs and alcohol, neglect, at-home abuse, some of those things kids go through on a daily basis. I’m thankful for not being in that category.”
But that doesn’t absolve him, he said, from “helping someone get out of that.”
Peter Dutton, 22, is from Lancaster County. He went to Millersville University and got his bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. He just graduated in the spring.
“So I’m incredibly green,” he said with a laugh.
Photo by Dale Mezzacappa
He moved to this area because his girlfriend got a job in Berwyn, and for a time he worked for a moving company. He will be teaching science and math to 4th graders at Thomas G. Morton Elementary, a K-5 school in Southwest Philadelphia.
Although he came late to deciding on teaching as a career, he does, so to speak, have it in his blood.
“My dad is a music teacher in a K-6 school,” he said. “He has been in the same school, teaching the same families, for 35 years. The way he would talk about young kids and watching them light up made me interested in teaching in general, and as soon as I got in classrooms, I knew instantly want I wanted to do.”
He recognizes that his life has been very different from that of many of the children he will teach. “I know I’m a white cisgender male,” he said. “I haven’t gone through the things these children have. I’ve had a blessed life.”
But he credits some professors at Millersville for “emphasizing the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy.”
His sister, he said, works in publishing, and she has been steadily “pushing books at me, like [James] Baldwin and [Toni] Morrison.”
For his student teaching, he had the opportunity to teach in Lancaster City, “English language learners in a 2nd-grade classroom. A lot of my peers didn’t care for how challenging it was. But I really enjoyed it and felt like I could handle it and wanted to.”
Jessica Lawyer grew up in West Philadelphia, attending Bluford Elementary, Beeber Middle, and Parkway Gamma High School. A professional chef with degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Culinary Arts, and Drexel University, she will be teaching culinary arts at Edison High School.
She has been a chef for 13 years.
“I told my mother about mise en place,” which means “everything in its place” and refers to the setup required before cooking. Setting up the ingredients beforehand helps with efficiency, but the phrase is also about working together and building relationships. She has learned from experience that “everyone learns differently and asks different questions, which makes you do different research, dig deeper, and learn more. I like that.”
Photo by Dale Mezzacappa
Ebullient, with a ready laugh, she said that she doesn’t have a specialty but that braising is her favorite cooking method. Her plan is to eventually get a master’s degree and a doctorate in molecular gastronomy, which is the study of food and the history of cuisines – “literally everything from the hunter-gatherer to using alternative plant-based ingredients.” It’s science and it’s sociology, she said.
She has another career ambition: “I have a dream of launching an all-girls, black and brown girls’ culinary institution,” she said. “I love to learn, I love to keep up on my craft, and I love sharing my knowledge.”
David White grew up “smack in the heart of Greenwich Village” in New York City, went to the progressive Little Red Schoolhouse from kindergarten through high school, and then to Haverford College, where he got a bachelor’s degree in sociology and education.
“I kind of knew Philadelphia, and I knew I couldn’t afford to live in New York City,” he said. White will be teaching science from kindergarten through 5th grade at John Marshall Elementary School in Frankford.
Before applying to the District, he worked for two years for KIPP, a charter school operator. He gravitated to teaching because “my mother is a psychologist, my father is a college professor, so I had no fun growing up as a child,” he said mischievously. “I was psychoanalyzed all the time.”
He realized that in high school he always liked hanging out with his younger buddies, and when he took an education course at Haverford, “I remembered how much I like being around children, so I should go and become an elementary school teacher.”
Photo by Dale Mezzacappa
His father teaches microeconomics at New York University’s Stern School of Business; his mother works with the zero-to-3 age group through Head Start and New York City public schools, “so she’s acquainted with the population of students who we work with.” Both visited his classroom and “were amazed at what it took to be a teacher in a lot of different ways.”
He is a devotee of Christopher Emdin, a professor of science and math education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has launched the Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education. Emdin writes and speaks about “white people who want to teach in the hood. I started the process of understanding and learning, which will never end, the biases I would have as a white man, a straight white man with students who don’t look like me, did not grow up in the kind of household I did.” At KIPP, he said, there was a lot of reading and discussion about culturally relevant pedagogy.
“There have been times I made a mistake, made an assumption I shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’m glad we’re having the tough conversations.”