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Teachers' Lounge: The Role Model

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In celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week in May, Teach Plus interviewed six of the many inspiring teachers we know. We decided to keep interviewing (and celebrating!) teachers because ... well ... why not?

In the Teachers' Lounge today, meet Akosua Osei-Bobie, who teaches fourth grade Sheltered English Immersion math and social studies at the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston, MA.

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How did you end up in teaching?
My junior year of college, I worked as an intern at Schenectady High School through a program called SEAD -- Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth. I come from a similar socioeconomic background to the students I worked with, and I started to wonder -- how was I able to make it? And the answer became clear. I come from an immigrant family that stressed the importance of education, and I had teachers who pushed and challenged me. The most successful people in the world wouldn't be where they are today if it weren't for some sort of education that they received. I knew I needed to pay it forward.

But your mother, in particular, discouraged you from teaching. A lot of people seem to have similar stories. Why do you think that is?
My family is originally from Ghana, and both my mother and father made lots of sacrifices to ensure that my siblings and I would have the best education possible. They wanted to give us all the opportunities that they didn't have when they were growing up -- and a lot of that has to do with money. So, when your child tells you that of all professions that she could be studying for -- doctor, lawyer, engineer -- she chooses the one that gets paid the least and isn't revered ... I'm sure that had to be frustrating for my mother. She just didn't want to see me struggle to make ends meet.

I hear you're the youngest of five. Get picked on much?
My siblings wouldn't call it picking on me ... they would call it "looking out for my best interest." Since my siblings are much older than me, it was like having four additional parents growing up. They were (and still are) pretty good at telling me what to do.

Can you tell me about a teacher who changed your life?
Mr. Mangram was my seventh grade social studies teacher. At school we used to joke that you didn't need to know Mr. Mangram, you just needed to hear him. When he talked, you wanted to listen because no matter what he said, he made it sound like the most important piece of information you'll ever hear. Mr. Mangram was also one of three black teachers I had all through middle and high school. I remember being really excited that I had received one of the highest grades in his class. He pulled me aside and said, very honestly: "That's not good enough. You'll have to work 10 times harder than the white person sitting next to you. Never forget that and never do anything less than your best."

Why do you think diversity in the teaching force matters so much?
Every child needs to have a tangible role model. Not a celebrity. Someone they know and have interacted with who makes them think: "If I could be anything like this person, that would be awesome!" As kids get older, it becomes more important for them to see and interact with people who they can relate to. It doesn't have to be race. It can be gender, religion, socioeconomic status. It's about being able to look into someone's eyes and genuinely say, "I understand." There is power in that!

Again I think back to Mr. Mangram. Prior to him, I had had predominately white teachers from more affluent backgrounds -- who were great teachers. They always encouraged and supported me. But it wasn't until Mr. Mangram's honest, heartfelt words that I realized that I needed to be prepared for so much more. We cannot underestimate the power of having a positive role model in a child's life, especially one who the student feels she can relate to. That's why diversity in the teaching force matters.

You came into a turnaround school as a brand new teacher. Little bit challenging?
Words cannot describe how challenging that was. Especially since the stakes are so high. I had a huge sense of urgency -- these kids don't have time for me to slowly figure things out. Then again, that's the mentality that all teachers need to have no matter the circumstances -- every minute counts.

What has it been like to be part of the turnaround process?
The turnaround process has really made us all think about how we reach goals in the most productive and meaningful way for our kids. When people think of a turnaround school, often the immediate thought is -- what's the data? And yes, data is important -- but sometimes we (myself included) can get so bogged down in it. It takes things like Ms. Dottin's first graders going to the White House to recite the "I Have a Dream" speech; seeing students' artwork hanging from the walls; the school rallying behind the boys' basketball team as they become city champs; hearing kids talk about how they want to perform their poem in the poetry slam -- it's those kind of examples that make you realize that the turnaround process is really about turning around the mindsets of our students, teachers, staff and the community ... not just about making sure you have the right numbers.

What have you learned from other teachers in your school?
EVERYTHING. I'm very fortunate to work in a school where teachers collaborate with one another constantly and seek one another's opinions and advice. They have mentored me, evaluated me, challenged me and made me laugh. They've taught me that you should not tackle things alone.

What do your students teach you?
My kids have taught me how to put things into perspective and never give up. Sometimes I think about my "challenges" and then I realize, that is nothing compared to what some of my kids go through every day ... and they keep trying no matter what.

So how does your mom feel about your career these days?
She understands how much this means to me and she is always encouraging me to be the best teacher for my kids. Occasionally she'll inquire about what my next steps are, but that's how parents are in general. Always trying to make sure their children are taking the right steps ... like we do, as teachers, for our students.