A Teacher Who Sees Himself in His Students
SCHOOLS | May 4, 2017
A Teacher Who Sees Himself in His Students

When Quinton Clemons announced he was going into teaching, many tried to dissuade him.

“They said I was too old and too black,” said Quinton, now a History teacher at Walter H. Dyett High School.

Ironically, these were the same reasons given to discourage Quinton from pursuing his first career as a professional ice-skater.

“People told me, it’s too late for you to think about ever going to the Olympics,” said Quinton, who did not become serious about skating until age 13. “And besides, black men don’t skate.”

More a performer than a competitor, Quinton traded thoughts of the Olympics for a career in entertainment, first with Ebony on Ice – the first-ever all-black figure skating ensemble – and then with Disney on Ice, where in addition to touring the U.S., he performed in cities from Canada to New Zealand.

Quinton’s extensive travels combined his passion for performing with his love of history – a unique skill set that comes in handy as he works to engage his students. With his ebullient personality and colorful style, he makes the freshmen at Dyett sit up and take interest in content that they might once have considered dull.

“He finds ways to make things fun, and I never thought that history could be fun,” said Mikal, a freshman in one of Mr. Clemons’ classes. “He uses his energy to connect with us and make us want to learn something every day.”

In keeping with the mission of Dyett, Mr. Clemons also integrates the arts into all aspects of his curriculum. For example – rather than writing a traditional research paper on World War I, students in Quinton’s classes draw a representation of the players, or choreograph a dance to explain key battles.

“Options like these let students combine the content we need them to learn with the passions they have when they come through the door,” said Quinton.


Becoming the Teacher he Needed

Born in Chicago’s Roseland community, Quinton spent much of his childhood in distressed neighborhoods, so he feels a kinship with students who struggle with violence and poverty. But his experience also afforded him strong coping skills, which Quinton views as a strength.

“After coming from where I came from, nothing in the world is going to stop me, and I tell my students that it shouldn’t stop them either,” he said. “I see them as having strength and a zest for life, and I believe it can take them anywhere just like it did me.”

What frustrates Quinton most about teaching is the way society underestimates his students.

“People see these kids as problems rather than potential, and that’s heartbreaking to me,” he said. “That’s why I chose to teach in a school community like Dyett. I want to be the teacher I needed as a kid. Someone who looked like me and could see me as worthy of success.”

A “Thank You” from Teacher to Teacher

One teacher who saw success in Quinton was Ms. Margaret Ballash, his 6th-grade Social Studies teacher at Chicago’s Waters Elementary.

“She was a brand new teacher, so we were her very first class,” he said. “She was so excited to be there, and it was obvious how much she cared about us. Until then, I didn’t know that a human being other than my parents could love me that way.”

Inspired by Ms. Ballash, Quinton strives to evoke those same feelings from his students at Dyett.

“This is where my teaching philosophy begins and ends,” he said. “Students deserve to feel like they are in a safe space with teachers who truly care about them. Once you achieve that, the learning is easy.”

It seems Mr. Clemons is well on his way, with students filling up his classroom during their lunch period to ask advice or work on projects for his courses.

“He’s like your best friend,” said Dyett freshman Marquetta. “He’s that kind of teacher who really lets his students be heard and accepts us for who we are. Because he sets that tone, we get concepts much quicker and better in his class.”

This might also have to do with Quinton’s innovative teaching style, which he credits to, among others, Julie Peters and Jennifer Olsen of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I was so fortunate to have professors like [Julie and Jennifer] in my life,” said Quinton. “They showed me that my ways of looking at curriculum and instruction were different, but not weird.”

Those ways include using East Coast-West Coast rap to explain rivalries and alliances, and asking students to create hashtags and tweets that summarize historical texts. Quinton’s professors also helped guide him as a new teacher, reminding him why he got into the profession to begin with.
“When I first started teaching, I was receiving some offers from affluent school districts in the suburbs, and was struggling over what to do,” he said. “Professor Peters told me to ask myself who I was and where my soul would be fulfilled. Answering that question is what led me to the students I’m serving now, and there’s no place I’d rather be.”