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Leveling the Playing Field for All Students

September 10, 2019
Veteran teacher Justin Newell uses sports as a metaphor for life in Camden, New Jersey.

In Justin Newell’s eighth grade English Language Arts classroom at Mastery Schools’ Cramer Hill Elementary, you don’t have to start as the “best and the brightest,” but you do have to be coachable.

A former college athlete, Justin is using the lessons that sports can teach us about ourselves to transform his students into resilient, lifelong learners.

Tell me about your school community.

Camden is just outside of Philly. You can actually see the skyline from the window of my classroom. But it’s miles away in terms of affluence. At one time we were the hub for shipping on the Delaware River, but after those jobs left, extreme poverty hit. More than 90% of our students receive free or reduced lunch, and there’s a lot of crime. So often, kids come to us really streetwise, but academically behind. It’s my job to teach them how to play the hand they are dealt. And while they might have challenges, we try to tap into their strengths.

What’s it like teaching eighth grade?

They have high school on the horizon and while they might be the kings and queens of our school, they are still young enough that they need that nurturing and love. It’s an honor to be part of their village and help raise them. Part of this can sometimes be as simple as saying, ‘It’s OK! You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to try your best.’ It’s this mentality that has helped raise their test scores and made them more excited to learn. It’s a combination of tough love, relationship building, high expectations and discipline. I give them a lot of ‘at bats’ to make mistakes and you either win or you learn. When they have a higher stake in their own learning, when they start to understand the incredible progress they are making, it’s a beautiful thing to see.

What made you want to become a teacher?

You don’t have to be defined by where you come from. I know that firsthand. My family showed me two polar opposite experiences in this community. One side was below the poverty line, and on the other, my grandfather was a college professor. I saw where a good education could take you.

Growing up, I wasn’t the top of the class and I didn’t get in trouble. But I was the kid who could slip through the cracks if someone wasn’t putting their thumb on my head. I became a teacher to reach out to kids like me, who tried hard, but maybe things didn’t come easy to them. I knew it’s where I could make the biggest impact.

What can sports teach students about life?

I coach flag football, baseball and softball at our school, and I get to see these lessons play out every day on and off the field. As an athlete growing up, sports taught me how to win, lose, work hard for the things that I wanted, deal with the unexpected and, most importantly, how to be coachable and humble.

I see this a lot in the intramural games we play. Our kids are really talented athletically, but they just haven’t been given the same opportunities as athletes at some of the suburban schools—the coaching, the extra workouts. It’s the same thing in the classroom. I try to teach my kids that nobody wakes up great. Success takes hard work and practice. It’s my job to meet them where they are and make sure they keep growing.

What has helped you succeed in your own professional life?

Strong leadership, period. Our principals are amazing. We are learning from the very best. My boss in particular is so young that I could have taught her myself, but she gives me the reins to make my own mistakes and feels more like a partner than a boss. The success our kids are having speaks for itself, but to get there you need leaders who micromanage the important things while giving you the freedom to achieve in your own way. My job is really difficult, but I come to work excited every day. It feels like a vacation to do what you love.

I don’t know a team in my school that doesn’t go as hard as they possibly can, and if I’m there at 6 a.m., there are five teachers there before me. What you put in is really what you get out. The kids can sense it. They are the best BS detectors out there. When they see us as teachers stepping up to the plate for them, it urges them to do the same.

Teachers Inspire is a series of stories that highlights the talented professionals who are inspiring students across the U.S.
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