Matthew Phillips teaches middle school in North Philadephia.
When I walked into my classroom for the first time last September, I had a vision of what I wanted my middle school science classes to look like: I wanted students working with lab equipment to gain a better understanding of the world around them; I wanted students striving to meet the expectations I set for them; but above all, I didn’t want my students to come back to our school next year.
The school I teach in is an alternative school. My students have all been transferred to here by the School District of Philadelphia for disciplinary infractions. If they show improvement, they get another shot at proving themselves in traditional settings. While the challenge they face can be daunting, I prefer to look at it as an opportunity: each of my students is at a turning point. If they can move in the right direction,they’ll experience a dramatic change in their life trajectory.
It’s an opportunity for me as well: I get to be there to help them at this critical point.
One student in particular, Devon, makes me grateful for both the challenge and opportunity I’ve been given. Devon started the year as one of the major troublemakers in his class. Not a day went by when a teacher or an administrator wasn’t calling his aunt to talk about his behavior in class. In my first few days as Devon’s teacher, he did not even pick up a pencil.
Then one day, during our warm-up exercise, Devon suddenly came to life. I was doing a quick review of the metric system to prepare my students for a lab, and Devon lifted his head up and shouted “I know this!” He walked to the front of the room, grabbed a piece of chalk, and wrote down the conversion for every unit I had posted.
I kept Devon after class and spoke to him about that moment. I told him how impressed I was and encouraged him to take such an active role in his class everyday. After that, Devon made incredible progress. His change from class clown to honor roll student took time and a great deal of group effort from Devon, his other teachers, and me, but by year’s end, Devon proved to be one of the brightest, most thoughtful students in our eighth grade.
Two weeks ago I found out Devon will accomplish the third part of my vision--he’s going to leave our school. Devon received his restoration letter from the School District of Philadelphia, but instead of returning to his neighborhood school, Devon has been admitted to a technology-centered charter school. I have already reached out to TFA corps members at Devon’s new school to tell them about the exceptional student they are receiving. I know they will make sure his progress continues throughout high school. I’m confident that Devon will continue on his path to success, and I am thrilled to be here at the turning point to wave him on his way.
Matt grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Goucher College, and now teaches in Philadelphia. He loves running, parks, and, of course, his students.