Tony Smith Teacher, Sullivan High School

Tony Smith almost didn’t become a teacher. A graduate of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, his family has a long history of military involvement, and originally he planned on going into the Marines and transitioning into law enforcement. That all changed when his mentor at Sullivan from the History department talked him into taking over his position when he retired in 1986. Mr. Smith has been at Sullivan ever since.

This year Mr. Smith is teaching Sullivan’s Senior Seminar with Umoja’s curriculum and collaboration. He couldn’t be a better fit for the job – his Senior Seminar class nicknamed him, “Supportive Smith,” and that’s what Senior Seminar is all about. Mr. Smith explains, “When students get a chance to discuss or debate something and you see them start out with their own point of view and shift it, sometimes more than once, that’s what it’s really all about – developing an ability to communicate with each other. They make the connections that will serve them for life.” He also sees the value of not just the community within his class, but the community of adults. Through Senior Seminar students see, “it’s not just one teacher saying you can do this, you can go to college, you can stay in college, you can pay for college; it’s not just the counselor but a whole team of adults.” At Sullivan this team is 12 teachers and staff members who compose the Postsecondary Leadership Team who work in partnership with Umoja staff on site.

This year Mr. Smith has also really appreciated having on-the-ground support in implementing the curriculum and supporting the Senior Seminar. He says, “Umoja has a variety of strengths, from very practical ideas and lessons to a diversity of opinions and abilities that the staff bring to the table. I couldn’t ask for a better partnership. It’s a win-win for everyone.” We agree!

It’s not easy work, but as he explains, what keeps him motivated are the students - “When I get to the end of the third week of school and get a note that says ‘I was thinking of transferring schools’ and a student that said ‘I’ve stayed because of you.’ When I get a note, like I did just yesterday, that says ‘Life is Mean, Be Strong, I Understand You’ from a student in Senior Seminar after a particularly tough class period.” Sitting in on Mr. Smith’s Senior Seminar class you can see why students might say that; he finishes each class with the entire group chanting, “One Team, One Family.” And he continues to live and breathe this motto.