Story 3 of 20: The Power of Partnership: A Teacher's Tale by Anthony Smith and Aubrie Tossmann

Umoja supports adults who are helping students develop the behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies crucial to academic success in high school and beyond. Our Social Emotional Learning team, in partnership with our schools, develops a student-centered culture that starts in Seminar classrooms and permeates school-wide. We asked Tony Smith, Umoja Senior Seminar teacher at Sullivan High School, and our Director of Social Emotional Learning, Aubrie Tossmann, to reflect on Umoja’s value “Partnership” and the importance of Social Emotional Learning in our schools.

Tony Smith: “Umoja came into my life through Advisory for our homeroom students in 2012. I was willing to listen to what they offered to see how it would fit our students, faculty, and school. I found it to have a depth and richness that other types of programs I had seen come and go over the decades I have been teaching did not. It also offered a real vision that, if taken seriously, could enhance everyone's life. Umoja came to Sullivan with a lot of support and the support was and continues to be diverse, intelligent, solution driven, and most importantly for me, team driven.”

Aubrie Tossmann: “After Umoja was at Sullivan for a year, I started my partnership with Tony in 2013, when we piloted Umoja’s Senior Seminar for the first time. I followed Chad Adams (principal) to Sullivan from our previous partnership at Harper High School. Chad told me that Tony was excited to lead Seminar, but he had previously been teaching history at Sullivan for nearly 30 years! I was nervous that Tony might not be receptive to something or someone new in his classroom. That could not have been farther from my experience! First period, the first day of school, Tony introduced me to the class and had me participating in a community building game where he INSISTED that every student learn all of the students' names in the class. There were smiles and laughter—instant community. Tony creates that sense of team with everyone who now enters the fold.”  

TS: “I have had the fortune to work with Umoja in the capacity of Senior Seminar teacher. This is my fifth year. Umoja has helped me to become a better teacher and person. They have improved my patience, growth mindset, teamwork ethic, and efficiency. Having worked in three separate school systems: Private, Catholic, and Public, and as a grammar school and high school teacher I have worked with numerous outside agencies and organizations. Umoja is by far my favorite. They supply a wealth of information, direction, and stability. They also allow me the freedom to alter lessons based on my personality and the personality of my students and particular class.”

AT: “Tony’s called me ‘partner’ for many years now and I couldn’t be more honored to have that title. It has been amazing to grow alongside him for the past 5 years.  Like I said, I was nervous about working with a veteran of Tony’s status, but he’s everything you want a veteran to be. He knows the history of the school and the challenges of the neighborhood. He keeps in touch with students (in their 30s now) who are Uber drivers and airline pilots; he invites them to events such as Umoja’s Student Day of Action to speak about their experience and they all recount the care that ‘Mr. Smith’ showed them in their high school years. Tony is FUELED by the power of relationships which makes our partnership a perfect match. We want students coming to school feeling supported, cared for, and ultimately that they can be the creators of their own future. He ensures that Senior Seminar IS that place by sharing his own narrative, style, and, of course, humor, but he also leaves the freedom for a students’ future to not be prescribed.”

TS: “This is important for me. I am a graduate of Sullivan. I graduated in 1980. I student taught there in 1985 and, after a short bit of teaching at 2 other schools, I began teaching at Sullivan in 1986. I have always hoped for the best for our kids and our school. With the support of and partnership with Umoja, I have seen students who would otherwise have likely fallen through the cracks go on to prosperous future endeavors with college, internships, and careers. I have spoken to so many of our kids who have said that at the start of their senior year they had no intention of going to college. It was often a matter of self-esteem, as many of our kids did not think they had what it takes to make it in college. They had never heard: ‘you should go to college’ from their family. Often times they are the first ones to attend college.

10616283_10152632238597766_7472977051487364592_n.jpgOther students had major obstacles to overcome. Their families did not want them to go to college. They needed their income to sustain the family and so the family insisted that they work full-time jobs. Some students had families who resisted helping them with FAFSA for a variety of reasons. Year after year, I have students who have cried over these setbacks. They would eventually cry again, but this time they were tears of joy and thanks.”

AT: “All of our Chicago Public Schools experience a great amount of transition over time, whether that be students, adults, or the neighborhood. The fact that Tony, a white guy, grew up right inside the walls of Sullivan and is able to connect with refugees, immigrants, and students of color from all over Chicago is a rarity. He sees students for who they are and who they could be. Everyone needs that social and emotional support right now.  My favorite thing that Tony does is clap for everything: right answers, good questions, big celebrations—everyone belongs and gets celebrated in his room. He’s inspiring and he embodies an important foundation to Umoja’s mission: that all students and all schools, no matter the history or the zip code, deserve the opportunity to be supported in a holistic and meaningful way.” 

TS: “The vast majority of our kids feel confident in their multi-layered plans by the end of the school year. It pleases me to see that the team has accomplished a great deal. It is hard to analyze the good in human dignity, pride, self-confidence, and a sense of trust, family, and love, but I have seen the growth in our young adults, many of whom stay in touch with me and the Sullivan family, of which Team Umoja is an integral part. I can see the benefits that they are reaping because of their experience with Umoja.

Umoja makes a difference; a huge difference. I just wish every kid in every school in every country could have them in their lives. I am very happy that I have experienced them and have been able to make a difference with them. No matter what your background, Umoja is family. In that family are kids who just arrived from war-torn countries and do not speak English, and kids whose whole family structure is criminally based, and kids who have nearly given up on themselves, and kids who are on the right track and are excellent students but who do not get the recognition at home. Our kids know that. They feel a part of this family.”

IMG_1748.JPGAT: “I wish every kid in every school could have Tony in their lives! It is the power of partnership that makes a teacher who was once a quiet pillar become a driving force of student success and emotional growth. And he doesn’t do it alone. Through Umoja’s work at Sullivan, we have learned the necessity of collaborating with our school counselors, the importance of creating strong and functioning teams of teachers and other adults, and the benefits of integrating our Seminars with our Restorative Justice Peace Room model. Sullivan’s partnership has helped lead the way to Umoja’s future. That’s a legacy that can’t be understated. There’s a whole slew of adults at Sullivan who contribute to creating a new reality for their students, but if Tony hadn’t been willing to take that risk with Umoja and turn Seminar into everything it could be, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. I’m so grateful that he wanted to partner with me through our work.” 

TS: “I most appreciate the teamwork. The vast majority of our kids have learned to build trust and teamwork and to count on each other for support. It is a marvelous thing to see. It makes me happy. I could not do what I do without Umoja and I thank them deeply for all that they have done for our kids, for me, my colleagues, and my school.”

*Tony (pictured left) with Kendra Johnson, a fellow teacher at Sullivan High School. Aubrie (pictured left) with Tosin Akinsanya, a graduate of Sullivan High School.