COMMENTARY

Thanks, TJ; local school shows value of minority teachers

2/22/2014
BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek
Johanek

Georgia's gain is Ohio’s loss. Therome James, widely known as TJ, is a rare find.

 James
James

He’s an eighth-grade science teacher at Briar Middle School in Erie County. He’s also the only African-American educator most students in the Perkins Township School District will ever encounter.

The 53-year-old educator, accustomed to being the only minority male faculty member in the schools in which he’s taught for 24 years, is leaving the state at the end of the month.

He accepted a job teaching eighth-grade science at a middle school in Kennesaw, Ga. For the first time since he began his career in Ohio classrooms, Mr. James will be one of many minority teachers mixing with many African-American students.

He can’t wait. “I get a chance, No. 1, to work with other teachers of my race, and to teach more African-American students, which I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I get to see if all the knowledge I’ve learned over the last 30 years, all that I understand about kids, doesn’t change whether students are black or white.

“I don’t think it does,” said Mr. James, who grew up in inner-city Columbus. A chance meeting with a coach from Ohio Northern University led the Linden-McKinley High School basketball player, who played on the school’s 1977 state championship team, to a college opportunity.

Mr. James graduated with an accounting degree and a teaching certificate. He was headed toward a lucrative career in finance, but quickly reconsidered.

Business was boring. Office cubicles were too confining. There was not enough interaction with people. He took a detour into teaching and never looked back.

“I chose education because I knew I really enjoyed kids,” Mr. James said. “I’m a Christian, so I know that some things are a gift and teaching is a gift I was given.

“Kids gravitate toward me,” he said. The tall, gregarious man is their coach, teacher, and friend. “I’m passionate about making sure kids learn, making sure they all achieve something.”

His first teaching job in Fort Loramie, Ohio, a small, all-white community in Shelby County, was a learning experience for him as well as the school district that hired him.

“It was a scary feeling for me at first,” Mr. James admitted. “I realized it would be a culture shock for [townsfolk] and me. But I knew I could handle it, having gone from a high school with three white kids to a primarily all-white college.” He told his interviewers that “this community needs me more than I need the job.”

“Kids in the community needed to know about my race beyond what they heard on the news,” Mr. James said.

He was offered the teaching job with a condition. “I could teach their kids, but not live there,” he said. “I was shocked, mad, but the reality was that not everyone would welcome me with open arms, and the district didn’t want to take a chance with anything happening.”

Eventually, the novice teacher moved north to more diverse communities and schools. But he remained “the only African-American brother” teaching students, collaborating with colleagues, changing perceptions. He knew he was the only person some African-American children with problems could relate to.

“They asked me because we’re the same,” Mr. James said. “I’m of their race. The question is, if I wasn’t in the building, who would they ask?”

African-American men make up fewer than 2 percent of nearly 5 million public-school teachers in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. African-American children can go through their K-12 school years without ever being taught by a black teacher, without ever seeing an educator who looks like them.

Yet the numbers of minority students are growing. In the near future, classrooms with students of multiple races will be the new norm in school. They will need a diverse array of teachers who share their backgrounds and understand their experiences.

They will need a Mr. James, dedicated to making a difference, to changing lives every day. But that won’t happen until schools get serious about recruiting and retaining more African-American men and other minorities as teachers.

The scarcity of positive black role models in education and teacher development programs in colleges needs urgent attention and aggressive remedy. Therome James won’t be replaced with another African-American in his Ohio school district.

He’s a rare find. Best of luck in Georgia, TJ.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com