My fervent desire to serve my community is what led me to a career as a teacher. But, it was anything but a straight path.
I have previously alluded to one of the main reasons I ended up choosing teaching as my desired profession and mission. Teaching is, by far, simultaneously, the most challenging and most rewarding career out there.
Although I had a social justice framework in my upbringing, had positive relationships and experiences with many of my teachers, and grew up in a household with a mother who taught, I did not initially consider teaching as my role in society. Even when my martial arts teacher would tell me that I should strongly consider becoming an instructor with my own class of martial artists, I would quickly demur and change the subject.
changing my self-view and my role in my community
I just didn’t see myself as a teacher (of any kind). But, something changed.
After 12 surgeries and several weeks in the hospital, teaching was still far from my mind. After briefly contemplating law school, I decided to do some social work, which led me to a position as a counselor at the Youth Study Center (YSC).
My thinking at the time was that I needed to help kids like the one who had tried to kill me. Where else could I find youth who might struggle with trauma and tempers, who may have far too easy access to drugs and guns, who dropped out of 8th grade? This seemed like the place to help youth who had lives that mirrored the kid’s who shot me. I believed I could find and support them at the YSC-a holding place for kids waiting to be adjudicated.
The YSC is where I would make my mark in the community and how I would serve those who were in need of support, guidance, tough love, and compassion.
I didn’t make it through orientation.
Although the youth at the YSC desperately needed help, I yearned to find them before they entered such a place. I felt myself falling into depression at the thought of seeing kids as young as 12 in what would constitute as a kiddie jail. When I spoke with a few counselors at the YSC and educators, including my mother and some of my former teachers, they strongly encouraged me to join teaching to make the impact I envisioned. I didn’t just want to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working within the system, I wanted to join people working hard to dismantle it by ensuring our youth had a great education and great opportunities to match. I needed a proactive way to fight for justice and equity. I needed to be in a school.
I knew the children at the YSC needed gifted and committed counselors and staff; however, I also knew I needed to find another way to make an impact. I didn’t need to look far because at that very time of my mental and spiritual meandering, the School District of Philadelphia was looking for Black men to engage and instruct youth in the classrooms of Philadelphia-before they ended up in a YSC. The District was partnering with an organization called Concerned Black Men, and a concerned Black man, I was.
Finding the right seat on the right bus…
So, in the fall of 1993, I began my life’s work in southwest Philly at John P. Turner Middle School as an 8th grade Literature and Social Studies teacher. I knew I was in the right place, doing what I was destined to do. I could not have predicted it, but the intersectionality between my love for learning, my commitment to social justice, and my personal north star pointing to serving my community were the magnets that drew me to teach.
Twenty-four years later, I remain immensely grateful to have the opportunity to serve our city in such a capacity. In an effort to honor those who encouraged and supported me, I recently helped found an organization, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, that can trace its ancestry to the Concerned Black Men who helped launch my career. The Fellowship, similarly, was established to support aspiring (and current) Black men who want to serve in the capacity that marries academics to social justice-teaching.
Today, the Youth Study Center still houses too many of our youth. And, we need far more educators-especially men of color-willing to enter the teaching profession. Our communities need educators to serve as “railroad switch” operators, supporting our youth in changing the trajectories of their lives and to help establish social justice in our communities.
Youth, like the one who shot me, are counting on this to happen.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.