Southern teacher finds success in building minds

April 11, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Tom Albright's teaching philosophy is perhaps best summed up by the words on a sign in his Southern High School classroom: "The mind grows by what it feeds on."

But don't think he's hung up on cerebral achievement.

"Even though you may think they're not getting something in the classroom, what you teach them may affect their life in a different way," said Mr. Albright, who has been teaching and coaching at Southern High for 34 years.

"They may not be doing much work in your class, but it depends on what you call success. You've got to find a place for every student where they can find success, and that may be outside the classroom," he said. "All you can do is try to make good citizens out of them and instill some values and accept them for what they are."

Last week, he was one of 10 educators in the country named "An American Hero in Education" by Reader's Digest.

He'll receive $5,000 -- which he's already promised to divide between the scholarship program he started at the school and his computer lab -- and the school will receive $10,000.

"I really did nothing to get this," he said Friday.

That's not quite true.

"He's a legend with people at this end of the county," said Don Buchanon, the principal at Southern High, who with two other faculty members, Laura Garvey and Bonnie Pifer, nominated Mr. Albright for the award. "They all know him and trust him and respect him."

And they know and appreciate how much time the 58-year-old teacher devotes to the school.

A sampling: he runs the school store; he bought and installed nine additional computers, three printers and software for his computer classroom; he works nights and weekends upgrading the lab; and he's been senior class adviser and the student government association sponsor. He also gives up his one free period of the day to teach an extra computer course, and for the past 25 years he's organized and directed graduation ceremonies.

Mr. Albright also started the extra-curricular sports program at Southern High before the time when coaches were paid, and he's been the athletic director for 33 years. Over the years, he's also coached cheerleading, boys' and girls' soccer, junior varsity and varsity basketball and baseball. Along the way his teams have won 11 county championships, 10 regional championships and four state championships.

He says he keeps from getting "a swelled head" after winning seasons by reminding himself of the year his varsity basketball team went 0-19.

The real test of his own success, he says, is when he meets graduates.

"Everything you have to teach, the kid may not accept now, but when he looks at you 10 or 15 years from now, he'll know you gave him your best," said Mr. Albright.

He learned that lesson well himself as "a small, frail kid" in the eighth grade at a school in Raleigh, N.C.

"I was real shy, and we had to memorize poetry, and I refused to do it," he recalled. "The principal, who also was my English teacher, said he was going to make me repeat the eighth grade if I didn't do it. I didn't do it, and sure enough the grades came, and there was an F, and under 'promoted to the ninth grade' it said 'no.' At the time I thought he was being mean, but in my mind now he stands out as the person who did more for me than anyone. That extra year, and being with kids my own size, worked out beautifully."

Perhaps it is those memories, and the childhood spent in a Raleigh orphanage with 350 other children, that have prompted him to work so hard to get students to be successful at school.

The irony is that he nearly didn't become a teacher at all. After graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in marketing, he went to work at a hotel in Atlantic City and sent out some resumes. When Anne Arundel County called in the summer of 1960 to invite him for a teaching interview, he said he couldn't make it because he had to work. They called back anyway and offered him the job over the phone and told him to report after Labor Day.

"A few years after I'd been teaching, I went to the principal and told him I had a business opportunity in Atlantic City," Mr. Albright said. "And he said 'You've got to make a decision. You can get into that rat race, and work for a lot of money and be miserable. Or you can work with these kids like you've done and not worry about finances, and you'll be a happy man.'

"I've stayed for 34 years, and I wouldn't want to work at any other school."

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