Joining Forces to Inspire Students

Dom: My mom's Italian and my dad's African American. It was interesting growing up in a multiracial family, because I felt like I was different and was not exactly sure where I fit in. At school I wasn't treated as a white student, and I didn't really fit in with the black students, either.

Photos by Megan Monday

Dom & Iris | Madison, WI

I remember when I was a kid, I went to a friend’s house and his family members would make semi-racist jokes or comments. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, or how to react. I definitely don’t think they meant to be malicious, but they would say things and then be like, “Oh, but not you, Dom. You’re not like one of them.”

So that was a weird dynamic, trying to find my own identity as a kid. I had a hugely supportive family, but there was a lot of outside racial tension that I was aware of from a young age. I was extremely shy, and for a long time I didn’t feel like I had many peers. I think a lot my challenges stemmed from not being sure where I fit in.

Sports was one way that I coped and tried to find a group. I wasn't great from the get-go, so that motivated me to work harder, because I wanted to fit in. Eventually it buoyed my confidence and helped me find a path.

But I remember walking down the hall in my high school. When someone just said hi or acknowledged me, gave me a smile…I know how much that can mean to someone that feels like they’re being overlooked or is unsure of their place. A small positive gesture can make a huge impact in somebody else’s day—or whole life. I knew then that I wanted to pay that forward.

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Dom: I had a rough year in third grade. I switched schools and so for a shy kid, that was a huge challenge. But in fourth grade, I had a teacher who made a huge impression on me. Mr. Perry. He was a ‘man’s man.’ He had this big, strong chest, would talk about working out at the gym, would bring in fried chicken for lunch and just rip pieces off the drumstick, you know?

I have a couple of times that I recall him taking time out to talk with young men about building their character, about conducting yourself with dignity and respect. For me it was when our class was working on a graphing project together. We blew up a drawing of a whale to life-size, and then graphed it and we each got our own square to work on. So I’m working on my square, getting all the detail work in, and this other kid grabbed my piece of chalk and started drawing right in my square. We ended up both pulling on the chalk and I yelled something like, “It’s my damn square!” And Mr. Perry was right there. And he was like, “Mr. Lark, I’ll be seeing you at your recess tomorrow.”

And I was so scared, so scared, I didn’t know what he was going to do. But when we sat down and talked, he was calm, he was cool. He was all like, “You know I get frustrated sometimes, too. But you don’t see me cursing and yelling things out like that. We have to learn to find an appropriate way to channel that energy in a positive way.” And man, that resonated. And it made me feel comfortable, excited, and good about coming to school.

I look up to him in a lot of ways, like how he dealt with situations that might otherwise had escalated. He was able to defuse them and be calm. I took that to heart, because nobody wants to get riled up and pulled into a giant argument or fight if you can instead handle things in a more respectful and positive way.

Mr. Perry helped shape who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to start acting.

Dom: By the time I got to college I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do academically, but I had gotten pretty good at sports and had a football scholarship. I was pretty sure I was headed for the NFL. That was my focus at the time. I decided that I would just be a gym rat. So that’s where I was headed, but our football coach had mandatory community service…

I chose to volunteer at a local elementary school up the street from the gym. Every time I went over there I had so much fun running around with these kids, hanging out on the hoop, or stepping in the classroom and preaching the importance of an education and reading.

It was then that I recognized how much those little kids looked up to me and the influence that I could have as a mentor.

It brought me back to when guest speakers would come into my elementary school and inspire me. I realized that I wanted to be able to do that. It feels great to uplift other people, it feels great to see other people smile and know that you can encourage them and help them believe in themselves. I like to think of it as a domino effect. One positive gesture inspires another, and it just ripples out. That way you get to be part of something much larger than yourself. The leverage I have in this life is minimal. One person can only do so much. But you pay that forward and it becomes a whole movement.

It was then that I decided to switch my major to education. I transferred schools, got into the education program, and started hanging out with Iris.

Iris: My mom said she always knew that I was going to be a teacher. She’d ask, “Where did you always go to spend your birthday money?” I’d say, “The Learning Shop.” She’d ask, “What did you buy?” “Stickers.” As in appreciation stickers…the kind you would get from a teacher. But I’d buy them and give them to my friends just for fun.

My mom was a preschool teacher, so I always thought about teaching as a career. But at first I was hesitant to go into education. There are so many statistics that it's failing, and then in some of my classes in college, you learn that the system is in some ways set up to let certain kinds of kids fail, others succeed. I thought, "I don't know if I want to be a part of that system," you know?

But I remember the moment it clicked for me that I was going to become a teacher. I was working at a United Way summer school program. It was recess and I was hanging around with this group of fifth grade girls, just enjoying their company and having a great time. I realized that they were enjoying my company, too, and that I was a positive example for them. They would say things like, “When I’m in college I want to be like you, Ms. Patterson.” 

I realized at that moment that these ten-year-olds, they have magic in them. And if I wanted to stay young and I wanted to keep this magic, this youthful energy, I needed to surround myself with it. It wouldn’t be the same if I was in an office every day. So that was the moment. That’s when I knew that I was going to be a teacher.

Iris: I applied for my first teaching job right out of college. Generally districts don’t do new-hires until the end of the summer, so it was August when I got an interview. I was confident; it went well. The interview was a Monday, found out Tuesday that I got the job, Wednesday they gave me keys to the school.

I went in on Wednesday to assess, thinking, “Okay, I have desks and chairs. Phew!” But desks, chairs, and a set of social studies books and that was it.

So I called all my friends. I said, “I bought pizzas. Come and help!” I got my credit card out and my mom and I went out and spent a few thousand dollars to set it all up. You’re young and a credit card seems like a great idea, so just go for it, right? Well, I wanted to be ready. And my classroom did look great. It looked like I was a seasoned teacher.

Just before school started somebody told me, “You know you’re going to have a rough class.” Sometimes, the kids no one really wants to deal with get lumped into one group and a new teacher just ends up having that crazy kind of class. That kind of happened to me. But I’m not really a nervous person. I like a challenge. So I was just like, “All right.”

There weren't very many African American teachers in the school, so my students, many of whom were black, came in saying, "Whoa, Ms. Patterson's a black teacher." Right away I had a connection and I kind of went with that, you know? It was, "Okay, I got their attention. They're all ears." So I tried to work my magic right away.

Iris: I learned early on that behavior management was one of my strong suits. I set boundaries and the kids don’t try to push me too far. But I also learned early on that the key to success is in the school/home connection. I knew I wanted to get in good with the parents right away—to take the time and make those phone calls. Even if you need to show up at their house or if the parents need to come in, do that stuff. Kids noticed and it I thought, “Okay, that’s been missing for a lot of these kids.”

My very first year teaching I had a boy who had moved from down south up here, saying his mom’s not able to take care of him, dad’s in jail, he’s living with grandma and grandpa. He made, over the course of the year, four different shifts in his household and didn’t have good experiences with the law. I thought, “All right. Well, what are we going to do?”

So I started a program called ‘Men in Mentoring’ with some other teachers. We went to the UW, because I had just graduated from there and I knew some African American men that I was friends with that I thought would be a good fit for the program. Dom was one of them. I reached out to some of the professors that I still had contact with and asked, “Who can you refer me to? How can I get some black males in college into this school to work with these kids?” We brought them in and we had a tutoring program that built relationships with our boys, and it really helped.

Actually, just a couple weeks ago I ran into the same student I had my first year. He’s doing great. It was one of those situations where I quickly learned that these kids need someone to look up to, and if they don’t have it in their family, maybe we can try and provide it within the school.

Dom: Iris was a couple years ahead of me, and she really supported me on my journey to become a teacher. She even helped me navigate my financial aid and work-study stuff while I was getting my degree, and I started volunteering in her classroom a lot.

I think some of my biggest challenges came my first couple of years being a full-time classroom teacher. I came in confident, but also kind of blind because a lot of kids had traumas, and I didn’t know how to help them cope. A lot of them are in a situation where they are powerless and can’t control if they’re going to have food tonight, or if there’s going to be someone at home. When you have kids that are homeless or going through some serious issues, it’s challenging to know how best to support them, or hold them accountable, or even encourage them to focus on their education when some of their basic human needs aren’t being met.

For me, I wanted to make sure they felt like they belonged in this classroom. I wanted to create an environment where their classmates are supportive. I think that’s why I love teaching fourth grade so much. It’s that age where students start to become more self-aware and cognizant of their own thinking and their own actions, and of empathy, and they start being able to think more about how other people might feel and perceive. I think this is a really critical time for kids to start thinking about compassion.

Often times, you’re in a classroom and the teacher gets treated as the fountain of knowledge and they sit up there and spout everything. But that’s not the way it works in the real world. And that’s not the way that I think our classroom should be set up. So in this class, we take time to sit and talk together in a circle. We take turns communicating our thoughts and ideas. Making sure that everyone has a voice, and everybody has an opportunity to not only be heard, but to hear others, as well.

These kids are the future. If this world is going to change, it's going to be with the kids we have now. It’s like, "How are they going to treat others, how will they view others?" Hopefully it’s with more compassion than we’ve had in the past.

Iris: Almost half of our black kids aren’t graduating high school in Madison. And only one percent are going to college! That’s not working, you know? We’ve got to look at this situation square in the eye. The cultural ramifications of our history—the racism and slavery—have set our kids up to fail. Unfortunately, our schools continue to lose funding and we will fail our students if we wait around for the system to change.

The bright side? We can still make real changes now, despite all of that. I think change really has to start in the elementary schools. I tell parents, “If your kids do not have what they need before they go to middle school, especially if they’re a minority or if they’re in a family with a low income, chances are really, really low of your kid actually going to college.” It’s unfortunate, but that is the reality. If someday we do get more money in our public schools, we should definitely start with pre-K and help build them up from there.

Look, parents are the first teacher. I tell them we’ve got to do this together. Getting your kids college and career ready…teachers can’t do it alone.

This profession is still for the most part, at least here in Madison, white women. I think there is some difficulty connecting with the black parents, and that’s got to change. We can’t sugar-coat things and say, “Oh, we’ll get Jimmy up to grade…I’ll just call you if I need you.” No. It’s got to get a lot more real. It’s, “I don’t think your kid’s going to graduate unless we start working together. Do you want your kid to go to college?” Have those hard conversations. Once I started doing that myself, it transformed my teaching. Having brown skin gives me a leg up, a connection with the parents that need it the most. So we need a more diverse staff. Minority kids and parents cannot keep coming to school and only see white teachers, because what does that say? Only white people get to be the teachers and be in that position? All teachers have to start having these courageous conversations.

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there is anger. In the end, I’ve never walked away with a parent not coming back and saying, “Thank you.” Being able to bring these parents in and make them feel like they belong in the school is huge. It’s all about the kids, so I’m going to say whatever needs to be said. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s uncomfortable hearing that 50 percent of these kids aren’t graduating.

What drives me to work on this? I guess it started with just being black. But anyone who’s around these kids sees they’re so beautiful and they have so much inside them. They just have this roadblock that they just can’t get past. But I’m finding ways around that. It’s what drives me every day.

Iris: After ‘Men in Mentoring,’ Dom and I continued to look for ways to collaborate. After a few years, an opportunity came up for us to join forces as teachers in the same school, and to do a blended classroom, so we jumped on that.

I really, really like having another adult in the room, for obvious reasons. There’s always a student that’s going to need a little bit more than what you can offer when you’re teaching to all the kids. If you’re really trying not leave anyone behind, you need support. I’d had experience with that model—more than one adult in the classroom—when I worked in special ed. So Dom and I decided that we wanted to take our two classrooms and combine them. Now we co-teach.

Dom and I have only been teaching together here for a couple weeks this school year, but it’s beautiful. It’s like art, the way we work together. I can start a conversation with the kids, he can finish it. It works because we respect each other, we really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and you know what? We’re awesome communicators. We are. We’re awesome at it. So for our kids to be able to see two people communicating all day so well and never having that negativity between them…sometimes in their houses that might not happen. Especially in a male/female situation. So we’re able to model that for them.

We’re always trying to figure out, as teachers, how to do this and not burn out. I’m really good at it and I can do it, but I also have spent on average 70 hours a week on my job. Eventually I would like to get married and have my own family. And Dom, he just got married and had a baby, so how can he have a family life and still get results with the students? We thought, “Co-teaching. Shared responsibility. This is it. We’re going to do it.” I go to bed with a smile on my face and know that, “Hey, we’re going to do this together and we’re going to do even greater things than I was doing alone.” I just get excited. We text each other, just randomly: “I’m so excited about teaching!” “Me too!” So I think we’re doing the right thing.

-Dom and Iris | Madison, WI

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