Rising Above: Creating Opportunities for Learning
Michael Humphreys with two of his four sons, Elijah, (standing) and Jacob.
A standout artist, athlete, and school monitor at Taft, Michael Humphreys now works as a master teacher and chair of the history department at the College Academy High School in Washington Heights, New York. He enjoys mentoring new teachers, developing innovative teaching protocols, and advising the School Leadership Team on ways to move the school forward. He also serves on the Taft Board of Trustees.
"I see in young people an opportunity to, without sounding clichéd, make the world a better place," Humphreys says. "Regardless of racial background or country of origin, many parents and grandparents have instilled principles which we would all be proud of: equity, selflessness, compassion, competition, and of course, ambition. Educating students is a continuation of these traditional and enduring truths of humanity through the lens of different subject matter," he notes. "My preference is the study of humankind or the social sciences. The goal is to encourage reflection, self-worth, and value as a world citizen and the moxie to become a force of good for more than just oneself."
As a master teacher, Humphreys works to help younger colleagues develop their teaching styles.
"An early mentor of mine used to remind me that teaching is an art. A teacher's style is inextricably related to their personalities and interest. As an artist and athlete, I have continually reflected upon my style, taking both positive and negative feedback from peers, school administrators, parents, and most importantly, my students. I am a lifelong learner who still finds joy in continually learning," he says.
As an energetic young man from the Bronx, Humphreys applied to Taft as a second thought. New York Prep, his junior high school in Harlem, was one of the city's new experimental public schools, focused on finding creative methods to keep troubled youth in school. Fortunately, one of his teachers there was a Choate graduate who, on a hunch, introduced Michael's family to the idea of boarding school. Now, Humphreys works to instill a love of learning in his students, many of whom face similar challenges Humphreys did as a young man.
"I have, over the course of my career, taught global studies, American history, economics, and AP government and politics. Though most students are intimidated by their misconceptions about the content, they quickly realize that studying the social sciences is study of human survival that they are so entirely a part of," he says. "This reflection and shift of purpose opens their eyes to recognizing differences and embracing the many more similarities they share with people in their country and abroad."
Regarding courses on government and economics, Humphreys believes they serve as an invaluable stop along a student's academic journey because those classes are where they learn the tools for understanding and thriving in a democratic republic that has chosen a capitalist economic system.
"This understanding is needed more than ever for students, many of whom come from families who have not figured out how to actively participate and influence their political representation and financial understanding that allows for economic upward mobility," Humphreys says.
One challenge they are all learning about together is the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent his students to distanced learning.
"This year has been incredibly difficult for students across the planet who were fortunate enough to be privy to a professionally organized and publicly funded education," says Humphreys. Though his students have always dealt with racism and inequality, he says doing so in a global pandemic has been an added challenge.
"I believe that learning during the pandemic has been especially challenging for them because many of their inequalities were further exacerbated. Financial instability and lack of proper health care were two issues that often compromised the efforts of the most committed scholars. Lastly, though public school teachers are at times maligned by many, our stabilizing academic focus, self-esteem building, and unyielding love for our perfectly imperfect students on a daily basis was missed," he adds.
Humphreys says that as a community, his school has tried its best to replicate its students' experience online; however, it is exponentially more challenging. "Nothing replaces a genuine 'Good morning,' a high five in the hallway, or a serious after-school conversation about college and adulthood," he says.
Humphreys says the greatest change in education has come in the ways in which schools are operated and the expectations stakeholders have for children's futures. "Unfortunately, certain schools and personnel who work there never connect with their students. As a result, this lack of trust limits a student's potential as time quickly passes. Fortunately, those who are naturally willing and a few who have come along continue to show promise as tomorrow's leaders," he says.
Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow '84 is a freelance writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana.