05/09/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teachers' Lounge: The Bluff City Philosopher

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Teach Plus interviewed six of the many inspiring teachers we know. Meet them right here in the Teach Plus Teachers' Lounge throughout the week.

In the Lounge today, meet Jesse Jeff, a second-grade teacher at Delano Optional School in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a member of the T+ Network.


What inspired you to go into teaching?

Prior to going into teaching, I served in the United States Marine Corps, United States Army, and the Sheriff's Department. I used my badge to moonlight as a bouncer in a club, car repo man, and a bounty hunter. One of my duties for the Sheriff was to deliver prisoners to the penitentiary. One particular day, I was driving a 17-year-old whose sentence was over 200 years. I looked through the bars into the back seat, and saw my own face. I heard something in my head that said, the fact that you are on this side of the van and not on the other side -- it is only by the grace of God. After that, I resigned my position, finished college, and became a teacher.

What advice do you give your students?

Do the right thing at all times. It is easy to get into trouble but very hard to get out of it.

Who is one student who has made a strong impression on you?

I often tell my students how I use to like to hang with the bad boys growing up. However, when it was time to do something wrong, I would make up an excuse and slip away. About two years ago I noticed a young man watching me in the grocery store. He started a conversation and said I taught him in the sixth grade. He told me I saved his life. While in high school he and some friends were going to commit a crime. At the last possible moment I came to his mind. He made up an excuse and got out of the car. One of his friends was killed; the others went to the penitentiary.

What experience in teaching has broken your heart?

I take the term "in loco parentis" very seriously. There is no outcome more horrendous or heartbreaking than the death of a child. One of my students was murdered in a gang initiation. It was heart-wrenching since I tried to prevent it. I was intervening with a young man who was involved in gang activity, but his mother stopped me. Later, the young man was implicated in the death of my student.

Did you have a teacher who made a real impact on you?

My second grade teacher was a lady named Mrs. Burke. She introduced us to lobster. Can you imagine a black kid in the ghetto being exposed to lobster at the age of seven or eight?

There is a lot of talk about how the system is serving -- or not serving -- African-American boys. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Vestiges of segregation, absent fathers, and institutionalized racism still disproportionally affect African-American males today. As recently as this week the Justice Department announced that African Americans received disparate treatment from their white counterparts at the Shelby County Juvenile Court System. Until America takes the scab off of our racial sore and shines light on it, we cannot heal. Not talking about it does not make the injustice go away.

You have said you considered going into school administration, but decided to keep teaching. What has inspired you to stay in the classroom?

I hold a Master's of Science in Educational Leadership. But I am not defined by a title. I believe in leading by example. At this time I feel I have a greater impact on people in the classroom.

What insights do you think teachers have to add to the political process?

Nothing beats a failure but a try. I think teachers have a lot to add to the political process. Teachers need to wake up and realize every decision is a political decision. If teachers are not engaged, decisions will continue to be done to them rather than with them.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I see my story receiving national acclaim, not for any ego trip but because I think it can inspire and help somebody.

Here's what Teach Plus Memphis Executive Director Tamala Boyd has to say about Jesse Jeff:

African-American male teachers remain underrepresented in our classrooms, and their presence, as Jesse reminds me, is vital. Jesse truly has a passion to serve students. I am hopeful for the future of his students because of Jesse's dedication to them in the classroom, through effective teaching and sincere motivation. My hope is that others will be inspired by him to do exactly what he does: touch lives forever.