Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Ex-Marine Helps Plug Teacher Gap

In a dingy classroom on Chicago's West Side, a fan circulates warm, humid air as high school English teacher Phil Thomas paces beneath a sign that urges students to "ATTACK" the test.

"If we give you a job, don't just do it - kill it," booms Mr. Thomas, an ex-marine and Vietnam veteran who grew up in Chicago's housing projects. "Max-i-mize," he says, drawing out each syllable.

About these ads

Around the room, 49 students hunch over remedial reading assignments. For them, Aug. 11 is D-Day: the mandatory reading test. According to new school board rules, anyone who fails must repeat freshman year.

For Thomas, failure isn't an option. "All 49 will pass," he says. With a black eye patch, a US Marines tattoo, and scars from both foreign and urban battles, he has grounds for confidence. On the wall hang two shiny awards for excellent teaching in this troubled inner-city school.

America needs more Phil Thomases, observers say.

Nationally, demand is rising for new teachers as children of baby boomers swell public school enrollment to its highest level since the mid-1970s. The greatest need demographically is for minority instructors like Thomas who can be role models for America's diverse student body.

Minorities now make up only 13 percent of the teaching force, while a third of students are non-white.

The shortage of qualified teachers is worst in US inner cities, where nearly a quarter of schools have vacancies they cannot fill, according to a report last year by Recruiting New Teachers. The non-profit group in Belmont, Mass., recruits minority teachers for urban schools.

Last week, President Clinton called for a $350 million program to fund training for an estimated 35,000 teachers who agree to work for at least three years in impoverished urban and rural public schools. The five-year program would place "special emphasis" on recruiting minorities, he said.

About these ads

Some cities have already launched innovative programs to alleviate the teacher shortage by reaching out to high school students and mid-career employees from other professions. Since 1991, Chicago's "Teachers for Chicago" program has attracted 540 mid-career recruits such as Thomas. Including lawyers and scientists, they earn a substitute's salary while receiving free tuition for a master's degree. In return, they agree to teach in urban schools for four years.

"We need effective teachers committed to urban settings," says director Fred Chesek, adding that turnover in the selective program has so far been low.

Still, the word "committed" sounds mild to Thomas and others working in the inner city. "You need a vision, a calling," Thomas says. "You have to look for the invisible and expect the impossible."

Hooked by a quiet girl

For Thomas, that vision was first sparked in 1992, when a church friend asked him to substitute at a grade school near the crime-ridden Robert Taylor public housing complex on Chicago's South Side.

"It was a war zone. I saw kids running to school because there was shooting between the buildings," says Thomas, a longtime telephone company employee who had no teaching experience.

In a kindergarten classroom, one quiet little girl climbed into Thomas's arms and refused to be put down. "She was smelly," he says. "I don't think she spoke one word. But I carried her around all day and when I eventually peeled her off, I was hooked."

That year, Thomas signed up for Teachers for Chicago, but found he couldn't support himself and his two children on a substitute teacher's wage. So he worked a graveyard shift at a gas station. Often in winter, he was so tired driving home that he had to roll down the windows, let the snow blow in, and shout at himself at stop lights to keep from dozing off.

Keeping order amid chaos

Thomas's biggest challenge came when he was assigned to the all-black Flower Vocational High School in Chicago's impoverished West Garfield neighborhood. Many of the 800 students came from troubled families, had little respect for learning, and had a history of violence, he says.

"One girl was stabbed right outside this classroom," he says. Other students have been caught hiding razor blades in their mouths, or bullets in their pockets for guns stashed outside. Thomas has lost several students to street violence. One is in jail for murder; another for assault. Two are dead.

To establish who's in charge, Thomas talks tough. "I tell them I'll be the first one to break their face. Ninety percent of the kids will respond to that," he says. His teaching style is effective, but blunt: Above the blackboard hangs a small photograph of a lynching with a message that says, "Don't hang yourself, get an education."

Thomas also lets students know about his street credentials: How he grew up in Chicago's projects, was wounded in Vietnam, and later joined a gang, became addicted to heroin, and took part in armed robberies and shootouts. (Shot in 1976, he lost one eye and some of his hearing.)

"Someone coming into the inner city needs not to bring fear with him," he advises, pulling out his brown belt in karate. "I don't want to portray these kids as monsters, but they exploit weakness."

But equally important, Thomas says, is to laugh, cry, and show genuine empathy for the students, who often come to class hungry and drained. "You have to be a person in the classroom, not an aloof authoritarian," he says. "I tell them: 'If you need a father figure, I'll be your father figure. If you need a psychologist, I'll be your psychologist. Whatever you need, you can get it right here.' "

This balance, he admits, is hard to strike. "There's a very thin line between 'Mr. Thomas the professional' and 'Mr. Thomas my friend' " he says.

He breaks into a whiny adolescent voice. "Can you keep my dog for me, Mr. Thomas? My mom hit me, Mr. Thomas, what should I do? Mr. Thomas, can you give me $5 for whatever reason?..."

Once the rapport is right, though, "these kids will run though brick walls for you," Thomas says, and learning happens.

Two years ago, Thomas's diligence helped push up reading scores 16 percent across the board at Flower. "I've had kids exceed national writing norms," he says proudly.

As for today, Thomas has set his sights on the Aug. 11 reading test and getting in shape for another fall as wrestling coach. "I can't be weak if I'm gonna be throwing these kids around," he laughs, as a 200 pound. team wrestling member asks for a ride home.


* Schools with high minority enrollments have the greatest difficulty hiring teachers.

* In urban areas, minorities represent three quarters of students but only 38 percent of teachers.

* One fourth of high school teachers are not trained to teach their primary subject.

* 56 percent of high school students are taught science by teachers with no science background.

* Compared to 1961, teachers today are far less likely to say they would teach again.

* The salary of instructional staff at public schools has stagnated at $37,000 a year since 1990.

* Entry level teacher salaries in large school districts are not competitive with salaries of other entry level positions

* Public secondary school teachers in inner-cities are more likely to view these as serious problems at their school: drug use, teen pregnancy, drop out rates, violence, weapons, and a lack of basic student skills.

Sources: Recruiting New Teachers, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, National Education Association, National Center for Education Statistics, Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.