Michael Gilchrist was nominated anonymously.
The special connection that Mr. Gilchrist shares with his middle school students at KIPP’s AIM Academy is due in large part to his own upbringing. He grew up in one of the tougher sections of Suffolk, Virginia, where children often wrangled with adult-sized problems. For these children, issues at home made it difficult for them to focus on schools.
Mr. Gilchrist's students know something about this life, too. They are from the more economically challenged Wards 7 and 8 in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. – two of the predominantly black sections of the city. Mr. Gilchrist understands that a student’s incomplete homework or frustration in class sometimes has less to do with what’s happening in the classroom than what’s happening outside of it.
“I knew I wanted to teach students whose backgrounds look a lot like mine,” Gilchrist said. “I’m able to build relationships with them and their parents because our stories are the same.”
Growing up, Mr. Gilchrist always knew he wanted to work with kids. For as far back as he can remember, teachers would tell him his charisma, intelligence, and way of communicating had all the markings of an educator. He went off to college with hopes on helping children who’d gotten tangled up in the criminal justice system, but he left after a couple rocky years to pursue a career in restaurant management, followed by another in real estate. And yet, he just couldn’t shake the calling to teach.
One morning, after several years away from college, he decided to quit his job and re-enroll in school – this time pursuing a degree in elementary education. It wasn’t long before he knew he’d made the right call. Working as a dedicated aide in a third grade class in Southeast D.C., he met a student whose father had just died.
“My brother and I lost our father at a young age, too,” Gilchrist said. “My younger brother was about the same age as the student when it happened. I recognized some of the same signs and immediately knew what to do.”
The shared life experience helped Mr. Gilchrist support this student through their crisis and confirmed he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
There is a word that comes up repeatedly among Mr. Gilchrist and his students: accountability. They are all aware of the stereotypes about black kids from Southeast D.C. Some believe these students lack the discipline and work ethic to excel in math. Others question their commitment to education, but Mr. G and his students know better. Mr. Gilchrist’s mother always stressed the importance of education to him, and it’s a message that fills his classroom. They know if they want to be the best, they all must be 100%.
“In this room, we’re a family,” Gilchrist said. “At home, you have struggles. At home, you laugh, and you have fun sometimes. We’re going to do all of those things in my classroom, and on top of all that, we’re going to master the content and learn lessons as well.”
The lessons about life are sometimes more important than the ones about math. As a black male teacher, Mr. Gilchrist wants to ensure his students, nearly all of whom are black, will learn from his mistakes
Only 2% of teachers in the United States are black men. His students are especially glad they're able to learn about math and life from one. In addition to being their math teacher, Mr. Gilchrist is also their mentor. Many students can cite instances when they were getting mixed up with the wrong crowd or responding to stress with anger as adolescents sometimes do, and Mr. Gilchrist was there to talk to them about brotherhood, being respectful young men, and remind them of their mantra: 100%.
Mr. Gilchrist chose to teach middle school for this very reason: he believes it’s a crucial time in these students’ lives.
“This was the age for me where I could go either way," said Gilchrist. "This was the age where I started to get in trouble and was at risk of getting on the wrong path.”
Parents are fans of his, too. When he holds after-school tutoring sessions, he invites them to attend, and they often outnumber the students.
“Sometimes, the hurdle for parents in checking their child’s homework is that they don’t remember the material from so long ago, or they aren’t sure what to check for,” Mr. Gilchrist says. “The tutoring sessions give them confidence to engage their student and reinforces the fact that it takes all of us to help our children be successful.”
"Let me tell you why Mr. G is my favorite teacher," said one of his nominators. "I had him as a math teacher for two school years in a row, in fifth grade and now sixth grade. Mr. G is my favorite teacher because he loves to teach kids. He can crack a joke when needed. Math is my favorite subject because it started to become easier when he taught me."
Mr. Gilchrist is one of those teachers who understands teaching the subject isn’t what’s important, it’s the life lessons the kids learn from the subject that is important.