A post on the popular blog Humans of New York, run by photographer Brandon Stanton, recently went viral and raised over $1.4 million for a Brooklyn middle school while highlighting the struggles and successes of the school’s faculty.
The school first got attention when Stanton photographed 13-year-old Vidal Chastanet. Stanton asks each of his subjects a few questions about their life; in this case, he asked Chastanet who had most influenced him. Chastanet named his principal, Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
Mott Hall Bridges Academy is a public school located in Brownsville, one of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Talking to Stanton, Lopez described the neighborhood as one where students aren’t expected to succeed: “When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up.”
The photo of Chastanet, originally posted to HONY’s Facebook page on January 19, has been shared 146,000 times and liked by more than one million people. When it became clear that his audience was interested in hearing more about Lopez and the school, Stanton spent a day at the school talking with teachers and students.
Many of the teachers noted their students’ need for a solid education. Marie Lebrun, a math specialist, recalled her own first grade teacher helping her learn to advocate for herself after her family moved to the United States from Haiti. She connected that experience to her students’ lives:
My students are going to need education to advocate for themselves. They need to understand the law, so they know if it's being applied to them fairly. They need to understand the services they deserve, so they know if they're receiving them. They even need to be educated about simple things like fresh fruit. There isn't any fresh fruit in the stores around here. And they think that's normal. They need to know that's not normal, and that they deserve fresh fruit.
One of the major difficulties MHBA teachers face, however, is a lack of motivation on the part of the students. “It’s so hard to teach effort,” said Renee Kinsale, a 6th grade teacher. “It’s so hard to teach want. And there are certain days when it seems like the scholars don’t care, and you feel like no matter how hard you try, nothing is getting through ... and it’s easy to feel worthless.”
Ms. Olagunju, who taught in Nigeria before moving to New York, described a similar experience. “My classrooms in America were much different than my classrooms in Nigeria. There were fewer students, and more resources, but there was not the same desire to learn. I’ve had to learn to teach motivation.”
Olagunju approaches that challenge by leading by example. “I’ve found that the only way it can be done is to show it myself ... If the students see that I am trying my hardest every single day, many times they will respond by increasing their own effort.”
Other teachers try to encourage their students by making them feel welcome at the school. Dion Turner models his behavior as a sixth grade entrepreneurship teacher on that of his own principal when he was a child: “Every morning, when we got off the bus, Mr. Rahinksy would be standing there at the curb, waiting for us. He would shake each one of our hands as we stepped off the bus, and he made us feel like we belonged. So now that I’m a teacher, I come in early every single morning, so that I can stand right here and make sure my students get a hug and a handshake when they arrive.”
Lopez told Stanton that the school as a whole takes a similar approach. “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high.”
Chastanet’s comment to Stanton has brought far more attention to Mott Hall Bridges Academy than he likely ever imagined. Stanton set up an Indiegogo campaign to fund trips to Harvard for the school’s 6th graders. The campaign quickly reached its $100,000 goal and, by the time it ended on February 10, had raised more than $1.4 million. Roughly half of that money will go to fund a scholarship for MHBA graduates called the Vidal Scholarship Fund. Chastanet and Lopez also visited with President Obama in the Oval Office last week.
Lopez told PBS that this experience has reminded her of the importance of her work, but she recognized that teaching at a school like MHBA can be difficult. She sees that as one of the biggest takeaways for her fellow teachers and administrators. “I think that as educators, we try to save the world without acknowledging and being OK with the fact that sometimes we’re not OK ourselves.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.