Thomas Jefferson High School teacher Alesia Johnson-Coy (photo by Tina Griego)
I met Alesia Johnson-Coy in 2013, a little less than a year after I moved here. She could be found then, as she can now, on the third floor at Thomas Jefferson High School. You’ll know you have the right classroom if the poster on the door proclaims: “Expect to be accepted for who you are.”
Thomas Jefferson has 84 staff members and 628 students, most of them African-American, most of them considered “economically disadvantaged.” If described strictly by its test scores, it is a struggling school, only partially accredited by the state because of its low passing rates on standardized tests for math and history. It is also home to the district’s International Baccalaureate high school program, which serves as a magnet for students across the city.
“We have students who come from two-parent homes with a lot of support and then I have students that I have had for four years in one class or another whose parents I have never met,” Johnson-Coy says. “We have students who sometimes don’t see their parents because their parents are living their own lives and not concerned about what’s happening with the children. So you have to wrap your academics around their life situations.”
She teaches special education and has ever since she became a teacher at TJ in the fall of 1986. Her own students include young people who are autistic and young people who have a range of learning disabilities, and also those who have emotional or behavioral issues. “The less than, the marginalized, the kids that nobody wants, I typically end up with,” she says.
Johnson-Coy is suited for her students — she is, in fact, drawn to them, she says. She grew up in a working class neighborhood near Maggie Walker High School, from which she graduated. In that neighborhood was a boy, a child who was always in trouble. When she was in her third year at Virginia State University, where she was studying psychology, she learned from the boy’s mother that he was emotionally disturbed. “It struck a chord with me. I don't know why. I wanted to know what was driving his behavior. And I looked at his family dynamics. Underprivileged, no father in the home, mom a severe alcoholic, and thought, 'This child didn't have a fighting chance.’ ” Perhaps, she thought to herself then, his behavior was more a cry for help, for love, than it was a disability.
She switched her major to education (and later earned her Master of Divinity at Virginia Union University), and then went to teach in the same school system that she came up through. She has spent all of her career at TJ, save a six-year spell at the elementary school level.
This school year, she was named TJ’s Teacher of the Year, and was a finalist for the district’s Teacher of the Year award. Principal Darin Thompson says that one thing setting her apart is her “compassion and altruism. She is the epitome of unselfish concern for others.” Not just toward students, but staff, he says. “She is like the glue of this building.”
She is a teacher who, at the end of class, tells her students she loves them and that there is nothing they can do about that. “Love is a strong word,” she says one of her students, a young man recently out of detention, told her. “You can’t say that unless you mean it.” “But I do,” she replied. Ask her why she tells her students she loves them – it is a strong word — and the answer comes quick: “Because they don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care.”
She is the teacher who, day after day, tells another young man to remove his hoodie and headphones when he comes into her classroom, and who decides to say nothing one day just to see what would happen. “You didn’t tell me to take off my hoodie,” he finally says. “Because I’m not here to remind you of the things you know,” she replies. “I’m here to teach you the things you don’t’.”
This exchange inspires student teacher Christine Powell, who witnesses it. Powell then sees Johnson-Coy pull a chair up to this young man’s desk, and say, “Let me tell you something. I am not going to let you quit and I am not going to quit on you.”
“It’s not just words,” Powell says. “It’s beyond words. It’s a gift she has.”
It’s a part of the job not easily measured.
“I had to speak to the faculty about two weeks ago on what we are being called to do here,” Johnson-Coy says. “I talked to the staff about data being nonnegotiable. We have to keep track of the data in order to get funding, to get scores and measure performance, in order to be accredited, but we are called to so much more than data. We are called to these students to not just have a learning community, but to have a beloved community.”
I did not tell you the circumstances under which I met Johnson-Coy. She had been Garrick Ellis’ teacher. Ellis was 18 when he was shot and killed in his Highland Park neighborhood three years ago. I have often thought about the way she talked to me about him, how candid she was about his gifts and faults. She bought him an alarm clock, so he wouldn’t have an excuse to be late. She could never stay upset with him even when he was a brat — she used the word the way his mother might — because, unlike some people she’d known, he never resigned himself to the hard facts of his circumstances – the murdered father, the imprisoned brother, the lack of money. He remained hopeful and hungry for a future he was certain was within his reach. She was determined to help him reach it.
She cried at her desk when she spoke of him. When her fellow teacher entered the classroom and saw her crying, she broke down, too, and I thought, not for the first time, that most people have no idea what happens in the life of a teacher. This is in large part because most people have no idea what happens in the life of a school, any school. In this case, we are talking about Richmond Public Schools, which is to say a school district that for years been reaping the consequences of a city’s disinvestment, and to some degree, its disinterest. Those schools. Those kids. Not our problem.
I visit Johnson-Coy during teacher appreciation week – teacher appreciation week in a cash-strapped district in a cash-strapped city. Teacher appreciation week in an election year when the rhetoric soars and every student becomes precious. Johnson-Coy has learned over time to tune out the din. She has learned to navigate the waters of a fickle public, which swings from deifying teachers to crucifying them.
“When you spend time in the classroom with a wide range of students, some who want to be here, some who don’t, and when you deal with what I deal with, until you’ve done that, what you think about me is none of my business,” Johnson-Coy says. “I would invite people to come and see what we do, and I’m not talking about a day because we can do a dog-and-pony show for a day. Spend some time as church leaders, as community leaders, as City Council leaders, as School Board members. Spend some real time in a building. One of Gandhi’s statements was ‘Be the change you want to be.’ Because talk is cheap. Real cheap.”
She says she been stuck on the same pay step for 16 or so years. Maybe, she says, this will finally be the year teachers get their pay bump. One way or another, she says, “What I am finding is that without funding from the School Board, without funding from the City Council, without the necessary resources, I am still required to teach these children. That’s what gets me up every day. I show up for them.”