Wednesday, January 16, 2008
When principal Mitchell Shears arrived at Clausell Elementary School, students were having difficulty with math scores, so administrators turned the bathrooms into "mathrooms." Instead of the usual graffiti you see in school bathrooms, math problems line the walls in vibrant colors. When children feel the urge to mark up the walls, they exercise their brains at the same time. When all of the problems have been completed, faculty members add new ones.
Before he moved to Clausell in 2006, Shears was a fourth-grade teacher at Green Elementary School, also in Jackson. In a classroom of six girls and 16 boys, Shears knew he would be challenged to effectively mold the curriculum to fit the social and economic culture of his students. Recognizing the division between his life experiences and that of his students, he decided to research popular hip-hop culture and alternative teaching methods to better understand where his kids were coming from. He fostered personal relationships with his students and their families, and as the result of his success, Parents for Public Schools named him an Outstanding Educator in 2003. He has since presented his findings at national and regional conferences in Chicago and Biloxi.
In his first year at Clausell, Shears worked with teachers, students and parents to elevate the school's status from Level 2, a federal indicator of an under-performing school, to Level 4, indicating an "exemplary" level of achievement. Last Wednesday, Jan. 9, Shears presented his model, "Educating the African American Male," to community members and Jackson Public Schools administrators as part of the Parents for Public Schools/Jackson 2000 Lunch Bunch.
Shears stressed that teachers should use instructional aids students can relate to, despite traditionally successful techniques. The idea of the "average" student is becoming less and less realistic, he said, and educators have to close the gap between the curriculum and the students in order to enhance their learning experiences.
"A lot of our students don't have a chance to handle money," Shears said. "The majority of our students are watching their parents pass the EBT card. … We have to have (techniques) and things to help the students to really grasp the concept that we're teaching. From time to time, (teachers) look like, 'I can't believe he's saying that,' but it's time to be real."
Shears cited several specific challenges confronting black males, which sometimes spill over into the classroom. If educators teach them how to deal with things such as financial management, survival and hygiene skills, and relationship differentiation, it is easier for students be attentive in class and to grasp academic concepts.
For example, the geographic area that feeds into Clausell is generally comprised of low-income families and single-parent homes. Eldest siblings are often forced to assume the parental role at home, and when they go to school, they carry that mentality with them. This may lead to behavioral problems because the child does not want to yield to authority. This is why Shears says it's important to know each student and their home environment. Just knowing a child's home situation allows teachers to effectively relate to each student appropriately.
"Most (students) who have the responsibility of being the parent at home don't understand when they come to school (that) they're not the adult," he said. "They need to see positive examples of different group dynamics."
Many teachers and educators focus primarily on preparing students to perform well on district and standardized testing. But Shears says teachers need to look beyond the tests and prepare their kids for life—helping them set career goals, and then understand what those goals mean. "When they see that you have an interest in them, and you take them beyond just those basics, then they will reach the basics that we have set," he said.
Excellent column, Maggie. Mr. Shears can't be paid or applauded enough for his good works. This is the kind of charge we must commit to doing to save our youths. We gotta help this brother.
- Ray Carter
I think that Mr. Shears' efforts will change lives for the better. Kudos to him.
Mr. Shears is on target and I hope that this attitude of "holistic" education or teaching the whole child will spread to other principals. We (educators, adminstrators, parents & volunteers) have to understand that when that child steps off the bus in the morning, all the problems that he or she has at home are coming with that child. Their home environment (poverty, abuse, apathy) IS NOT a coat that they can just take off when they get to school. We as a community need more support programs, activities, and groups in place to help our children manage those "issues" so that our teachers can focus on teaching. WAY TO GO MR. SHEARS!