Like most teachers, Thomas Fleming loves to see his former students go on to lead fulfilling lives. But for Fleming, the pleasure may be a little greater because most of his students have had to come a little farther. Fleming’s classroom is in a prison; his students come to class from cells. A history and government teacher at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., the 59-year-old Fleming (pictured above with President Bush) is also the 1992 National Teacher of the Year, the first special education teacher to be so honored.
A high school drop-out who later earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Fleming believes that all young people can learn and have a bright future. He has been bringing this contagious optimism into his otherwise somber work environment everyday for the past 20 years. Colleagues say his intense, positive teaching style works. “Tom really challenges his students,’' says Paul Helber, supervisor at the detention center. “He consistently sets up small obstacles that they can get over.’'
Says Fleming: “Everybody looks at troubled teens today and describes their toughness. But anyone who works with them knows that that is just such a thin shield. It’s a defense that they’ve used to try to protect themselves from being hurt, disappointed, misused, or abused again.’'
Fleming’s work environment and schedule are hardly typical. Before entering the classroom each morning, he checks the night record to see if any new students have arrived or if there have been any “incidents’’ during the night that might affect his students’ moods. The calmly energetic man with the almost constant smile has only two months to reach most of his students; they are rarely incarcerated for longer. Whether his charges are with him for five days or 30, Fleming says, he tries “to reconnect them to the definition of what they are--a student.’'
As Teacher of the Year, Fleming will be touring the United States and parts of Europe over the next 12 months. His message: that to succeed, struggling kids need caring role models they can trust, and teachers need the support of the larger society. “I want to see every kid get his or her needs met,’' Fleming says. “I want to see a system where every kid gets a sense of worth.’' --Jody Silva
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as From Drop Out to Standout