Ashanti Branch was working as an engineer when a friend called him up to ask if he would volunteer a few hours on Saturday mornings to tutor students in math for the Upward Bound program at Mills College. Branch grew up in Oakland, attended its public schools, worked hard and went on to get a college degree from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. He figured it was time to give back a little, but he only committed to a few months. He surprised himself by taking his students’ academic progress personally.
“The fire started,” Branch said. “And I was trying to run from it. I was like, wait, teachers don’t make money. I don’t want to be no teacher.” But he couldn’t outrun the calling to become a teacher, so he went back to school to earn his credential and started teaching math at San Lorenzo High School near Oakland.
Right away he noticed that some students were not succeeding in his class, and they were mostly young men. So he invited a group of them to come to his classroom at lunch – he’d provide food – so they could tell him how to be a better teacher.
“And what they started talking about was, ‘I ain’t gonna be no nerd, no geek, no teacher’s pet.’ Everything about ‘smart’ to them was negative. And I realized my job was to build a space that was smart and cool.”
So Branch kept buying those students lunch, building a rapport with them, making them feel special, chosen. He saw a lot of himself in those students.
“What I realized they needed was what I needed in high school. I needed a space to just be human. And to be like, ‘I’m going through stuff, and I don’t get to talk about it, I just have to pretend everything is great. Everything is not. I’m struggling.’”
And just like that, without even meaning to do it, Branch started the Ever Forward Club…
KQED’s MindShift is a radio podcast series by and for teachers and explores the future of education by highlighting the innovative – and sometimes counterintuitive – ways educators are helping all children succeed in Stories Teachers Share.