Teacher 'Never Gives Up' on His Troubled Students

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For some teachers, the gulf between their own stable, educated backgrounds and the tumultuous lives of their unmotivated, truant--even violent--students represents a barrier that can be bridged with little more than compassion.

But Thomas A. Fleming, who has taught juvenile offenders for 20 years at the Washtenaw County juvenile-detention center in Ann Arbor, Mich., has never needed to wonder what it is like to be a slow learner, or a high-school dropout, or in trouble with the law.

No need, because he has been all three.

As well as he can relate to the students' grim past, Mr. Fleming--who teaches integrated history, government, and geography--can also show them what a brighter future may hold.

His own desire to learn lifted him from being an adult unable to read a U.S. Army-issue New Testament to earning a General Educational Development certificate, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree in regular and special education.

Perhaps one day, a student of his can also claim Mr. Fleming's latest achievement: honored in a White House ceremony last month as the National Teacher of the Year.

The accolade, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with Encyclopedia Brittanica Inc., represented the first for a Michigan teacher as well as the first for a teacher of special education.

The distinction comes to someone who, like many teachers, has quietly and consistently worked to conquer a mountain of professional challenges, his colleagues say.

Through it all, Mr. Fleming maintains an unflagging optimism, taking pride--as many special-education teachers do--in the smallest progress toward a given goal.

"What comes through when you talk with Tom is the sense of tremendous dedication,'' says Michael Emlaw, the superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

"The kinds of kids Tom deals with are the kinds of kids a lot of society has given up on,'' Mr. Emlaw says.

But, he adds, "Tom communicates that he believes in them. ... He doesn't give up on a kid.''

As Mr. Fleming explains, "Everybody looks at troubled teens today and describes their toughness.''

"But anyone that works with them,'' he adds, "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.''

'A Lot of Fights'

Reared by his grandparents on the east side of Detroit, Mr. Fleming, now 59, learned early on about being hurt.

A member of one of just three black families in the neighborhood, young Tom Fleming got into "a lot of fights'' with neighborhood youths who called him "Hershey bar'' and "Sambo.''

"My mother [his grandmother, Carrie Bell] would take me back ... to the principal, and we'd make an agreement--self-control and all of that--and I'd hold it in as long as I could,'' he remembers. "Then it would start off again.''

Later, he found himself denied graduation from 6th grade because he was "a little bit too slow academically'' to advance to junior high. A stint at a "semi-reform school'' and at another nongraded school followed.

At 16, while enrolled in the trade school at Detroit's Chadsey High School, he lied about his age to enlist in the National Guard. By age 17 he had dropped out of Chadsey, a "functional illiterate,'' he says, with perhaps the reading ability of a 5th grader.

Learned To Read the Bible

In the summer of 1950, when his Guard unit was nationalized, he earned his ticket out of Detroit, first to Fort Lewis, Wash., for training and then abroad to Germany, where he drove a weapons carrier and earned his corporal's stripes.

Honorably discharged a couple of years later, he was home in Detroit for three weeks before he was arrested and thrown in jail on suspicion of breaking and entering.

Though he was there only overnight, the experience "just traumatized me to pieces,'' he recalls.

He went straight from the lockup to re-enlist in the Army, hoping at age 19 to escape further scrapes with the law and bleak job prospects.

To fight his homesickness while stationed in France, he turned to the Bible, which he found he could not read. Some fellow soldiers took him into their weekly Bible class and coached him through the Book of Mark.

As he learned it, he says, "something connected in me of what these words meant, and it was a life-changing experience.''

When he returned stateside in 1955, he was not planning to be an educator, but instead, "I was wanting to learn the Bible for the kind of spiritual nurturance it would give me.''

Soon after, he enrolled in night school, earned his G.E.D., and began to pursue a degree at the Detroit Bible College (now William Tyndale College), from which he was graduated with a bachelor's of religious education in 1964.

'A Father to Those Boys'

During the middle to late 1950's, he met and lived for two years with the Rev. George Gooden Jr. and his wife, Lucy Gooden.

Tom Fleming was "like my son,'' Mr. Gooden recalls, and he became one of the founding members of a storefront church, the Bible Community Baptist Church in Detroit, where Mr. Gooden is still pastor.

At the church, Mr. Fleming was licensed as a minister, headed the Sunday school, and founded the Boys Contact Club, an after-school and Saturday group to keep youths off the street with Bible study and athletics.

As Mr. Gooden remembers, "He tried to be a father to those boys, boys who didn't have a father like him.''

"He wanted to motivate them toward education and toward God,'' says Mr. Gooden, whom Mr. Fleming describes as "one of my earliest spiritual leaders.''

Mr. Fleming, who now has three children of his own, cites that boys-club experience as contributing to his interest in working with young people.

But, he adds, "a lot of what I attempted to do with them automatically gave me a lot of positive reinforcement, too--that I counted for something at that point with them, [that] I was important in their lives.''

That interest deepened as he worked his way through college and graduate school as an attendant at state hospitals treating young people with psychological problems.

It was through those jobs that he decided to change his major at Eastern Michigan University from social-studies education to special education, he says. He earned his master's from that institution in 1968.

Many of Mr. Fleming's own experiences have had a significant effect on how he deals with his current students, he says.

"I see young people today,'' Mr. Fleming says, "struggling to master just certain subject matter, learning how to spell, learning how to read comprehensively, and I can just remember back there when it was so difficult for me.''

To show his students that a poor student can go on to later success, he says, "I take right now my school records and let the kids see how many times I flunked courses.''

But his continuing desire to learn, something he tries to impart to his students, eventually paid off.

"I'll never forget when I first began to pass tests'' in college at age 25 or 26, Mr. Fleming recalls.

"I had that breakthrough,'' he says. "It was fantastic for me.''

Making Connections

In his work at the Ann Arbor detention center, he has had to make other breakthroughs, tearing down suspicion, distrust, and apathy about school.

"So often,'' Mr. Fleming says, "some of my earliest exchanges with them are to say, 'What is your alternative? If you are now 14 years old and you do not want to be a student anymore, what are you going to do?' ''

Regardless of whether the students are with him for five days or 30 days, he tries "to reconnect them to the definition of what they are--a student.''

"When you say you are no longer a student,'' he says, "you are giving up a great portion of your identity.''

Apparently some students take his philosophy to heart.

"I know that Tom Fleming's students do successfully reintegrate [into their local school districts] and do achieve high-school graduation,'' said Mr. Emlaw of the Washtenaw Intermediate district.

Perhaps his most famous former pupil is A. Whitney Brown, a student of Mr. Fleming's at a state institution for juvenile offenders, who became a writer and performer on the television show "Saturday Night Live.''

Mr. Brown dedicated his book The Big Picture to Mr. Fleming and another instructor, saying they were "teachers who made a difference.''

Vol. 11, Issue 33, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: May 6, 1992, as Teacher 'Never Gives Up' on His Troubled Students
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