Mission leads man by variety of paths to Baltimore middle school classroom

September 02, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Four years ago Tremaine Joel began teaching mathematics to young adults in the Jobs Corps, many of them troubled youths fresh from the juvenile justice system.

Yesterday, he took the helm of a sixth-grade class at Herring Run Middle School, one of Baltimore's largest and most turbulent middle schools.

His goal: to introduce a room full of learning-disabled youngsters to the joys of decimals, fractions and multiplication.

Though the age group is different, the aim is the same, says Mr. Joel, a 42-year-old former salesman and job counselor who hardly fits the usual profile for a first-year teacher.

"Students pretty much have the same needs," says Mr. Joel, whose clear, quick voice makes the classroom air crackle with energy. "They want to feel, pretty much, that you care about them."

The older teens he worked with in the Job Corps were "at that point where life is already a reality," he recalled. "They've experienced a lot of defeats, a lot of setbacks."

But Mr. Joel forged a connection with those students by remembering that "they were looking for that one person to go that extra step."

He expects that same dynamic to take place with the 11- and 12-year-olds in his mathematics class, all of them diagnosed with learning problems that qualify them for special, small-group instruction.

"A lot of them, they come in feeling put down -- 'You're slow, you're dumb,' " says Mr. Joel. "But I know what it's like to be in a situation that's difficult."

And he is ready to supply the motivation it takes to move those students forward in a subject often seen as dense and frustrating.

"It has to come from the individual teacher, to have a heart to care and a desire to challenge," he says.

Mr. Joel is one of more than 100 new Baltimore teachers who have come to their profession through a non-traditional route.

With an undergraduate degree in history, he worked for seven years as a job counselor for the Urban League, before taking a two-year side trip into the business world, as a salesman for Kraft Foods.

But his last four years as a math teacher with the Job Corps persuaded him to make the leap into public school teaching.

Currently, he is classed as a "provisional teacher," working in the classroom on a regular basis as he finishes the credit requirements for a master's degree in special education.

Mr. Joel's varied career path is a strength, says Leon W. Tillett Jr., principal of Herring Run.

"He's coming in with an initial commitment to the education of young people that is not the immature idealism that I see sometimes," says Mr. Tillett. "It's a realistic commitment."

After interviewing Mr. Joel for the teaching job, he adds, "We knew that we had a gem."

Mr. Joel acknowledges that he had some jitters about teaching in Baltimore's resource-poor school system, where his two daughters attended school.

So he was pleasantly surprised to find his classroom well-stocked with math texts and workbooks.

Mr. Joel is excited about the prospect of working with middle school children, catching them at an age when they are still impressionable.

"If they're given some kind of mediocre education, they're not going to feel good about themselves, their motivation is going to zTC be stymied," he says. "They're going to feel very frustrated and very angry.

"You've got to tap them at the right time," adds Mr. Joel. "I don't think our society is doing a very good job at that."

That, in a nutshell is the mission that led him, by a variety of paths, to a public school classroom in northeast Baltimore.

"I guess I should have followed my own intuition, and gotten into this a lot sooner in my career life," he adds.

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