Looking Back on Two Decades of Relationship Building on West 96th Street
SCHOOLS | April 26, 2021
Looking Back on Two Decades of Relationship Building on West 96th Street

By Latricia Baker-Tall, assistant principal at Green Elementary School

As a teacher, I remember one year we decided to split our eighth-graders into two groups for math. I took the boys and my colleague took the girls. This had to have been in the early 2000s, because I was using one of those old overhead projectors that you write on with a marker. 

While I’m teaching two-sided equations on the projector, one of my boys gets up and walks over to the window. Pretty soon, a few more boys get up. The ones who have stayed in their seats aren’t paying attention to me—their eyes are all looking toward the window. 

Turns out, there were two squirrels chasing each other in a tree right outside our classroom. So I paused my lesson, went over to the window myself, and we observed and talked about squirrels instead….talk about teacher flexibility!

That was the day I realized that building relationships with students doesn’t always mean following your own plan for how you think the day is going to go. And that epiphany, in a way, reflects my entire career. 

I was originally a licensed practical nurse for a number of years and worked with the Department of Children and Family Services. One day, I was assigned a baby who was very badly burned. As I held that baby and cried, I knew that I needed to do something different—something that would bring joy into the lives of children. 

After a few years of teaching outside of CPS—the district that I graduated from—I came to Wendell Green Elementary School in 2002. I wanted to continue teaching primary grades, but the principal took one look at my math endorsement and told me that I would be working with the “big kids.” I was apprehensive, but I ended up loving it! Middle school….this was where the excitement lived!

After teaching math for 13 years, my current principal, Mr. Tyrone Dowdell, invited me to become the assistant principal. Being at Green for almost 20 years now, I can tell my current first-graders that their parents were students in my math class. I have parents who tell me that they wish I was still teaching so their kids could have me as their math teacher.

And that is just one testament to the relationships I’ve built here. Those relationships are so important because education is a profession where the reward is not always instant. 

However, with some students, it is. There was one little girl who stopped by my office every morning just to have a conversation with me. And if I missed a day, I heard about it the next morning: “Mrs. Tall, I came looking for you and you weren’t there.” I knew I was meeting this student’s social-emotional needs. 

Other times, you don’t see the impact you’ve made until much later. I had one student who was one of the most disruptive students I ever had. His name was Kenneth E. He was the type of student that when you saw him sitting in your classroom, you’d think to yourself: “Oh my God, he came to school today.”

And then one day, I heard him singing. He had a really nice voice. Ruben Studdard had just won American Idol, so, when it was time for this student to graduate, we had him sing one of Ruben’s songs: “Flying Without Wings.” It was a fabulous performance that I will never forget. 

I lost touch with this student when he went off to high school, but he sent me a Facebook request years afterward. He wrote me a message apologizing for the type of student he was in elementary school and letting me know I was his favorite teacher and that I had changed his life. 

That student is now a singer and a minister, and he was even a contestant himself on American Idol. 

Stories like this one remind me that my career has come full circle. The same anxiety that I felt entering Green as a middle school teacher was shared by all of us this past year. We all became first-year teachers again.

One of my favorite memories of the past year was the Friday evening video meetings that I started for the staff after we began remote instruction to check in on each other and make sure that we all felt comfortable serving our students in a new way. The entire staff came together to share new knowledge.

Now that we are back in the building, it’s just another reminder that Green’s kids are our kids. We are responsible for their education and well-being. When we show up to school, we leave our problems at the door, and give 110 percent every day. Our babies deserve nothing less!

Building relationships with students doesn’t always mean following your own plan for how you think the day—or even the entire school year—is going to go. But it does mean following your heart and loving your students like they’re your own children and encouraging your staff to be the very best educators that they can possibly be. 

Building relationships is building community!

Interested in reading about another CPS graduate turned CPS assistant principal? Check out our feature of Nightingale Elementary’s AP Ms. Michelle Soto here.