If the principles of social network theory worked perfectly in real life, I would have met Sydney Coffin at least 20 years ago. Overlapping school friendship circles, participation in the same teacher networks, and shared professional interests in literacy and social justice link us in many ways. As it was, we met a few months ago at my local café owner’s birthday party, who, in addition to making the best crepes and coffee in town, also happens to be Sydney’s stepsister.
It was a serendipitous meeting. I was on the lookout for another Transformative Teacher to profile, yet with the increasing turmoil in the Philadelphia School District, there was a feeling of “survival mode,” which made the task more difficult. Jobs, healthcare, programs, and funding were (and still are!) being cut left and right. Teachers and students were marching in the streets every other day, demanding funding and equitable learning conditions. I worried that asking teachers to share their stories on this blog would divert their energies. Yet, within moments of talking with Sydney, it was clear that he was eager to share his story – he knew that storytelling can lift spirits, and that his, in particular could do the job quite well.
Sydney’s story is one of a teacher whose passion comes from knowing what its like to struggle as a student, of being motivated by an inner drive to make things better, and of being supported by a community of other teachers that share this compassion. Without further ado, I’ll let him tell his story in the below profile.
KBD: Can you share a little background with us about your teaching career? For example, what brought you into teaching? What do you teach?
SC: I failed out of high school in the 10th grade, from a prestigious, liberal school I’d attended for 11 years. My teachers did not understand me; I didn’t understand myself! I was floundering, but somehow I won a scholarship to go to another prestigious school and despite my troubles and my past, graduated (after repeating 10th grade). While I had a lot of terrific teachers at both schools, and I owe my life to many of them, and to many of them I owe a debt of gratitude for showing me how compassion is the most essential component to teaching, I never let go of the thought that I could easily have been at Germantown High instead, and the public schools fascinated me.
Many years later, after I had managed to get myself mostly together academically, I enrolled in a few graduate classes at Temple University’s education school and was placed at Edison High School to tutor English Language Learners in the library there. The experience whetted my appetite for teaching: I had wrestled with Edison’s team during winter scrimmages between our schools when I was a student, but I had always wondered what the academic side to the school was…and there I was in the thick of it; I hungered for my own classroom, where I could have a larger group of kids. Later that year, my grandfather died and I inherited enough money to pay for graduate school at UPenn (I had been working largely as a house painter for ten years). I went to school at Penn to learn to teach secondary English, and was placed as a student teacher down the block from Penn at University City HS. Despite some sleep deprivation from all the work, I loved it. I graduated, passed the PRAXIS test, and was hired to teach at Olney HS in North Philadelphia, where I worked for 4 years. I left after that to teach 2 long years in the deep suburbs of Delaware County, and struggled with the tremendous culture shift, as well as the unending commute. I returned to the city of Philadelphia and taught for 7 years at University City, seeing it through many transformations and several years of dramatic staff turnover, until its closure. Now I am back at Edison HS in North Philadelphia, teaching English; I have come full circle. I teach Senior English, Junior English, and Poetry.
KBD: What motivates and sustains you as a teacher?
SC: I am sustained by my love for my students. That does not mean I am not subject to random acts of moodiness and occasional flashes of frustration, but it is the solace I return to each night and each day. I love my kids, and I would do nearly anything for them. I have brought them bicycles, food, provided water to most of them, had some to my house, had another for Thanksgiving, forgiven three who smashed my car when I gave them the keys to get something from it, cried with them, laughed with them, and worked with them. They are my sustenance, and without them I believe my life would seem far, far less meaningful. They are my cause celebre, my raison d’etre.
I have brought them bicycles, food, provided water to most of them, had some to my house, had another for Thanksgiving, forgiven three who smashed my car when I gave them the keys to get something from it, cried with them, laughed with them, and worked with them.
I get more from them than I could possibly give, however, and thanks to one of them I am alive today — Three years ago I broke my collarbone and suffered a concussion riding my bicycle home from work after dark, and was taken to the ER where one of my former students was my trauma technician; she discovered a shadow on my thyroid after giving me a comprehensive evaluation, and recommended I get an endocrinologist to look at it closely. It turned out to be a 4 ½ cm tumor that filled my thyroid 96% and was on the verge of turning cancerous; fortunately, I had it removed and am alive to this day.
KBD: What do you think needs to change or happen in education/schools?
SC: We need to be more focused on making good people, rather than making good workers, or good test-takers, or even better academic scholars. Character has been taken out of the equation for schools, and yet it is the one thing that guarantees a person the connections that lead to an opportunity, to a job, to becoming responsible citizens who care for one another. Schools ought to educate the whole person, because fundamentally we are responsible for more than just a child’s academic skills: we spend as much if not more time with students than some do with their parents, and are ultimately attempting to teach them to ask interesting questions of whatever life hands them, to evaluate, based upon what they have read and learned, what to do next and how to lead their own lives and the direction of our society.
Even a plumber should have an ethical foundation; every secretary, SEPTA driver, or shopkeeper should have an essential concern for their fellow man, otherwise, what are we but inefficient computers?
I am already creaky in the knees, and I imagine some day soon I will end up in the ER again! I hope there will be another student who learned more than just how to operate an ultrasound, an x-ray machine, a CT-scan, an MRI, but additionally to put the information to use to help people; a good person is someone who cares enough to go the extra yard, who has the compassion to tend to the needs of every patient, without regard to bias, prejudice, or predisposition.
Even a plumber should have an ethical foundation; every secretary, SEPTA driver, or shopkeeper should have an essential concern for their fellow man, otherwise, what are we but inefficient computers? There is little difference between the expectation that a drivers education teacher should teach safety towards others, observance of certain general rules of fairness on the streets from behind a wheel, than that I should teach something similar to my students as they sit at their desks and develop their ideas about the nature of character motivation and evaluate right from wrong.
KBD: What is something that you are passionate about as a teacher/learner and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?
SC: I am passionate about poetry, social justice, achieving equity in society, and believe that I do not leave these leanings at the door when I walk in to teach a classroom of young people. I tend to wear my politics on my sleeve, and they need to see me as just as human as the next person, flawed and imperfect as I am. Even so, I am a really good writer, I have been able to learn to collaborate with a variety of different types of people during my life, and I’ve had a lot of experiences to draw upon that I think my students can learn from, too.
Charlie Parker, the great saxophone player of the 1940s and 50s, used to say that his best song was his next song, and I believe we just get better and better as time goes on, like wine, like a tree, stronger and larger, and more richly textured, reaching farther and farther outward, while getting deeper and deeper roots, a wider and wider center.
I often use myself as a lesson, to indicate how our lives are connected to what we learn, that there is a thread running through the moments of our lives which prepares us for the next, that builds a conglomeration of knowledge, that if delved into deeply enough becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Charlie Parker, the great saxophone player of the 1940s and 50s, used to say that his best song was his next song, and I believe we just get better and better as time goes on, like wine, like a tree, stronger and larger, and more richly textured, reaching farther and farther outward, while getting deeper and deeper roots, a wider and wider center.
Despite the old adage “We all die in the end”, I believe we can live on in the human spirit, through the lives we touch, through what may seem like sweeping back the ocean every day, but is perpetually relevant: that like the Beatles said, “The love we get is equal to the love we give”; perhaps our love can become exponentially more powerful if we send out our intentions as teachers, through the many modes we employ in speaking and listening, reading and writing, and above all else by feeling.
I teach my kids the great works of literature as I see them, but also to consider what they themselves can draw from those works to create their own work; each of them is certainly as capable of great meaning as Malcolm X, or Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Sojourner Truth—we need only cultivate a sense of timing and know the value of our own contributions to society to see how we are part of a community that is greater than us as solitary individuals.
We are important people, all of us, and that makes none of us more important than any other, however contradictory that may seem.
KBD: What groups, individuals, or networking contexts have supported you in your work? How?
SC: The Teachers Institute of Philadelphia, and its Director, Alan Lee, has brought me into the company of some of Philadelphia’s greatest teachers in my time, and led me to work for the Yale National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools, a.k.a. the national teachers institute, for one (and two). I never thought of myself as a Professional until I was in their company; and they taught me to write my own curriculum from content, not from methods, unlike most of the professional development in the School District of Philadelphia and across the nation that teaches us to jump through impenetrable hoops.
Also, PhilaSoup, a great idea invented by some very cool teachers and non-teachers in which teachers attend dinners of soup for a fee, and that fee is collected and compiled into a reward for the best project idea presented by an attending teacher. They have funded 3 dramatic projects and allowed my imagination to run wild with their cash and inspiration!
The Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement has provided a community of young poets who continue to inspire and motivate me (they’re better than grown-ups) and they allow me to enjoy the finest of what I wish I had had when I was in school: other artists of words and theater, performance, and drama.
Finally, the Philadelphia Writing Project has led me to believe in myself, my mission to write my life, direct my own script, and live the best I can as a teacher, as a thinker, and as a contributing voice to the conversation that is learning, in all its glory.
KBD: What advice can you share with new teachers just entering the field?
SC: Learn to handle the nuts and bolts of teaching: attendance, grading, and documentation; also, develop knowledge that can be passed on, the content of information, the experience with a subject matter, be it Science, English, Social Studies, Math, Art, or Music, and know how to DO something magical to help your colleagues: fix a copier, program a laptop, use google documents to create a spreadsheet, solve the absence of toilet paper in the staff bathroom, clean the faculty microwave, and pay attention to the creature comforts of your classroom: cultivate a sense of timing, knowing when too much is too much, and when they are hungry for more (usually in the form of chocolate!).
Listen as much as you speak. Inspire good talk, and listen to it when it happens for it is the music of your life, ’til you find yourself nodding and rocking to it like it has a beat, a rhythm, a melody. Because it does.
Celebrate every day like it is a holiday and a festival for your kids, have something intellectual for them to do with their minds as well as something playful for their hands to do; make their day unique as often as is humanly possible. Listen as much as you speak. Inspire good talk, and listen to it when it happens for it is the music of your life, ’til you find yourself nodding and rocking to it like it has a beat, a rhythm, a melody. Because it does.
Sydney’s Linkedin Page: www.linkedin.com/pub/sydney-coffin/47/aa2/425/
**About Transformative Teacher Profiles: TTPs are meant to “flip the script” and offer a counter-narrative to negative and dehumanizing stereotypes about teachers. Here you’ll read about truly transformative teaching, leadership, and inspiring work. The format is simple: I ask six questions of each teacher that I profile about their teaching and learning. If you know of amazing teachers that I should profile, please write me a comment below or send me a tweet about them!**