Today I went with Tyler Bernardini and Jerome Allen to West Philadelphia High School for about an hour to sit in on a Business Tech class taught by Wharton professor Keith Weigelt. The experience was eye opening to say the least. Where I went to high school students were not greeted by metal detectors and shouting security guards but rather a pleasant teacher reminding us to tuck in our uniform shirts. Tyler and I looked at each other with somewhat shocked expressions as if to confirm that West Philly High was nothing like Francis W. Parker or St. Thomas Aquinas.
The most interesting part of my time today was how the students interacted with the different leadership figures present in the classroom. For all intents and purposes there were three main people of authority: Jerome Allen, Keith Weigelt, and the substitute teacher of the class (whose name I did not catch). I'll talk about how each one functioned in the classroom and how it affected the dynamic.
Substitute Teacher- He is the easiest one to deal with because his presence was almost nonexistent. He shook our hands when he came into the class before it started, but after that he just stood in the corner and his only words were: "No hitting" in response to a misbehaving girl. Maybe I'm reading too much into this and he was just being deferential while Keith was teaching but his lack of engagement was glaring. He tried to warn us briefly about the rowdy kids before class and just seemed resigned to that norm. This type of leadership--or lack thereof--seems incredibly counter-productive to creating the necessary environment for learning. He was content to merely show up and prevent physical violence, nothing more. Obviously I can't generalize about public school teachers based on my limited knowledge but this did not give a promising first impression.
Keith Weigelt- Keith is a Wharton professor who specializes in negotiations and has worked with the basketball team on the mental aspects of training and performance since the days Jerome was a player. He has spent extensive time around Ivy League students and professors, which would not seem to make him well suited for dealing with what can amount to crowd control. Keith focused on the material that he had prepared for the class and repeatedly attempted to steer things in a positive direction despite umpteen interruptions. He spoke calmly and never raised his voice. Although he stayed poised throughout the class, it was obvious that Keith is more suited to dealing with Wharton students than distracted black teenagers. He impressed me in his professional approach to the situation but seemed to have a fundamental disconnect with the students that could prove to be somewhat of an issue.
Jerome Allen- As a relatively young black man who was an NBA draft pick, Jerome commands a good deal of respect among West Philly High students. They looked at him, googled his career info, and asked him questions about basketball. When the kids came in one by one, he looked them in the eye and shook hands. If he didn't remember the kid from last week, he introduced himself. I watched as Jerome talked individually with one of the kids who said he wanted to play college basketball but admitted to cutting the class last week. Jerome calmly told him that he had to go to class for that to happen, and the boy nodded sheepishly in agreement. Now I acknowledge that Jerome had a little more freedom for these types of interactions because he was not tasked with leading the class in the same way that Keith was, but nonetheless it was compelling to see. As a leader, Jerome was authoritative when there was a dispute over the attendance sheet but could flip to personable as soon as a student sat down next to him. I could clearly observe that he was connecting with these kids in a way that an over fifty, white Wharton professor could not.
The obvious (and somewhat disheartening) question is: "Yeah but how many young, black former NBA draft picks are there that want to be public school teachers?". The answer is not very many. But those do not have to be the only qualifications. The kids definitely seemed open around Tyler and me, whether it was because of our age or positions on the basketball team or something else. I know my time there was very short, but it seemed to me that the kids responded most to genuine interest or care about them. I fear that we have too many people in positions as leaders who are like the Substitute, who doesn't seem to care, or like Keith, who can't quite bridge the gap to connect. The presence of more leaders like Jerome Allen who command respect but also give it could only help these kids.