LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Thawn Harris

Position: Physical Education Teacher
School: Metropolitan Regional Career And Technical Center
School District: Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center
City, State: Providence, RI

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Music that Describes Thawn

Thawn Harris was nominated by his spouse, Eleanor Harris.

As an indigenous educator, Mr. Harris has stood as a leader, not only within his Narragansett Tribal community, but within his school community at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a statewide innovative career and technical public high school serving Rhode Island. He was the first male in his family to graduate from college, receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Rhode Island in May 2010. He began his career in secondary education as an academic advisor (teacher) at the Met School the following fall.

As an educator of color, Mr. Harris has brought a much needed perspective to the learning center. Moreover, he has provided young men and women of color with the example of how hard work and dedication can lead to success. His drive, determination, empathy, generosity, and down to earth, humorous personality leave a lasting impression on everyone.

Raised adjacent to his tribal reservation in Charlestown, RI, Mr. Harris overcame the oppressive cycles of addiction. He committed himself to living a life of sobriety so he could stand as a role model for his younger brothers and cousins. After he tragically lost his older brother to gun violence as a teenager, Mr. Harris wanted to manifest a life that was rooted in the traditional lifeways of his people. He married his high school sweetheart at a young age, and together, they raised a family of seven children down the road from his childhood home.

Through his formative years, Mr. Harris championed his values within his indigenous community on the basketball court. He encouraged the next generation to walk the “Red Road of Sobriety” and find healing through spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental wellness. In his early twenties, Mr. Harris to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Facility in Artesia, New Mexico to become an Environmental Police Officer for his Narragansett Tribe. In this capacity, he would work through community policing initiatives to invoke his message for health and wellness. 

Prior to his employment at the Met School, Mr. Harris also worked as a volunteer on the Met’s Newport, Rhode Island campus for four years. He supported advisory trips, provided indigenous cultural trainings, and introduced students to issues of conservation as an Environmental Police Officer. He also chaperoned out-of-state field trips, supported project development and work completion, and provided mentorship for at-risk youth. His presence within the Met Community was greatly welcomed and appreciated by the students and staff alike. In the spring of 2010, Mr. Harris came on as a part-time employee, providing targeted interventions for students coming from underserved communities. This early work at the Met would serve as the catalyst for his Met School journey, shaping the foundation for what would become a decade of service within a Title I school district. 

Mr. Harris' work as an educator began before he received formalized training at the University of Rhode Island. As a member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation, he was also a championship Native American dancer, as well as a traditional Indigenous storyteller and cultural educator. Mr Harris' work has been shared throughout New England, with credits including; the US Department of Defense, Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Brown University, New England Foundation for the Arts, Rhythm & Roots Music Festival, Rhode Island Public Libraries, Volvo Ocean Race, Providence Children's and Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museums, along with many New England schools, post-secondary institutions, organizations, and corporations. Additionally, Mr. Harris had the opportunity to travel as a cultural ambassador to Tanzania with URI's Coastal Resources Exchange Program. His work as a cultural educator has been highlighted in newspaper articles and news stories many times over. His passion for sharing his knowledge with his community is what truly illuminates his leadership and commitment to education. 

Mr. Harris began his full-time employment at the Met School by working in the capacity of an academic advisor (certified teacher) for a group of sixteen students. Through this role, he ushered this group through their four year secondary journey. He acted as their coach, guided them with the supportive development of individualized passion-driven curriculums, engaged them in the real world through project-based learning, and connected them to professional mentors in their field of passion to engage in rigorous real-world learning at internship sites throughout Rhode Island.

His first advisory group graduated in 2014. They looked at him as not only their academic advisor and classroom teacher, but a father figure and lifelong mentor. To this day, his first graduating class of the Met continues to remain in close contact with him, inviting him to weddings, asking him to be the Godfather to their children, and including him in celebrations of college graduations and job promotions. His commitment to these young minds has never wavered and continues to stand strong. 

Shortly after graduating in 2014, one of Mr. Harris' students, Erica O’Neil, posted the following tribute along with a photo of the two of them to social media with the caption:

“This is honestly one of the most important men in my life. He is like a father to me. He has been by my side for the last four years, and he has never given up on me. If it weren't for you pushing me to be the best that I can be, I wouldn't have walked across that stage last night. Words can't even begin to describe how thankful I am for everything that you have done for me. I love you....”

This year, Ms. O'Neil shared the following:

“Thawn holds a very special place in my heart. He came into my life after my father walked out and became a father figure to me. He counseled, taught and pushed me so that I could get through high school while suffering from severe depression. We still remain close to this day. He was one of the first people to visit me in the hospital when my sons were born at 27 weeks. Thawn is a great father, husband, teacher and friend. He has helped shape me into the woman and mother I am today.”

Recently, additional students from Mr. Harris' original graduating class shared the following about their beloved academic advisor:

“Thawn taught me some of the most important lessons I've ever learned. Among them: always be able to laugh at yourself. It's always better to live life smiling," - Julian Bessinger

“Thawn is a huge role model, and he pushed me to do things that I wouldn't want to do. He helped me...improve my reading and writing skills, which I'm very grateful for because nowadays I mostly spend my time listening to audiobooks and my public speaking is a lot better," - Anthony Watson

“Thawn was a very important educator and mentor in my time in high school,"  - David Quiroa

With the graduation of his first group, Mr. Harris decided to pursue one of his personal passions: health and wellness. He took on the role of physical education advisor at the Met School, where he established the following learner goal for his students:

“Through physical education and health and wellness programs, students are encouraged to be active, stay fit and healthy, and understand their bodies, all while having fun. Students learn about how to properly care for their developing bodies through calisthenic exercise instruction, cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, body composition, aerobic exercise, individual / dual / team sports, outdoor pursuits, dance, recreational and athletic games. The overall goal of the health and wellness program is to support students in developing the skills and habits necessary for an active life.”

Mr. Harris has truly committed his work in this role to ensure that all students, regardless of their physical ability, are able to engage in physical education in a way that feels safe, appropriately challenging, and most importantly, fun. 

It only takes one observation in Mr. Harris' gymnasium to see that his work to engage high school students in being active while having fun is met with success. He personalizes each student’s experience by meeting them where they are at and tailoring their physical education curriculum to meet their individualized learner goals. Throughout his time as the Met’s PE teacher, Mr. Harris has instructed over a thousand students and supported them in achieving individual fitness goals, including weight loss and management, gaining muscle, preparing to take military PT tests for admission to both the military and military schools, focused skill development, and targeted personalized training to meet sports goals. He has also facilitated integrated learning blocks with a focus on basketball skill development and organized basketball tournaments. His love of basketball allows him to foster deep relationships with students on and off the court, encouraging alumni to return for seasonal events and a chance to play against their beloved teacher. 

Over the last decade, in his role as a Physical Education teacher, Mr. Harris has individually mentored over thirty students through the Met’s internship program. As a mentor, he supports students in gaining knowledge in the fields of kinesiology, physical education, sports management, and general health and wellness. His interns often leave with professional certifications, participation in professional training workshops, increased anatomical and physiological knowledge, practical knowledge of sports rules and safety procedures, and stronger interpersonal social skills.

Mr. Harris assists his interns in the development of rigorous projects that are relevant to their learning and authentic in nature. Previous interns have completed exercise training videos, orchestrated a community basketball tournament, and developed workout training books. Becoming one of his interns is a coveted opportunity at the Met. It's not only because interning for Mr. Harris is fun, or even because it fosters the development of applicable skills, but because his reputation as a kind, caring, and devoted mentor precedes him. 

The relationships Mr. Harris develops with his interns are truly impressive. Through this connection, he is able to go deeper, love harder, and push students farther than they ever imagined possible. Over the years, his interns have all shared the same fond affection for their mentor.

“Thawn has impacted me in many ways..he has taught me a lot about basketball and helped me improve tremendously. He is someone I can turn to for guidance at the Met for both sports and life in general.” - Tyler Sumner, a current intern.

A prior intern, Joabel Celestine remains in close contact with Mr. Harris to this day and shares the following:

“Thawn has definitely done a lot to motivate me to do better in class and focus more on my projects that he had me do. He helped me have a better project about adaptive physical education and helped me to learn about things that I thought I didn’t want to learn. He also got me involved in certifications.”

Dimitri Spencer, also a member of the Narragansett Tribe, had the transformative experience of having a Narragansett tribal educator as his teacher and mentor, and he shared the following:

“Thawn’s a great father figure and a great role model on and off the court. He has an amazing personality which is why the Met students enjoy his company so much. Students even occasionally lovingly call him, 'Uncle Thawn.'"

At the Met School, there is a very special tradition where each student stands before their graduating class as the valedictorian of their own individualized education. Through this powerful moment, students are asked to choose one person to introduce them. The expectation is that this person should be someone significant in their life, someone who has played a key role in their development, and someone who knows the student well and can illustrate for the audience their growth by illuminating their success, even when faced with struggle. Each spring, as the excitement of graduation season begins, students ask Mr. Harris to be their introduction. This alone stands as a testament to his ability to make a beneficial difference in the lives of the students he works with and for each day. His ability to take on a nurturing role while also standing positively rooted in his values and beliefs leaves him as a stand out to these students of what they would like to be someday.

In a recent graduate's valedictory introduction, Mr. Harris began with this:

“The primary aim of the valedictory address is to allow a representative of the graduating class to bid a final farewell to fellow  students the staff and to the school, as the graduates prepare to disperse and to begin the next phase of their lives. As I stand here before you all today, I am honored to be giving this introduction and blessed to have Joabel come into my life. Throughout life, there are many people that will cross your path. Most last just a fleeting moment in one’s life, however there are times when someone will randomly enter one’s life and a connection is made.  To hear his advisory tell it, Joabel and I are the characters from the movie Love and Basketball. He is Quincy and I am Monica, and our bond [as mentor and intern] is built through our love of the game of basketball."

Time and time again, Mr. Harris been there for his students as a mentor, coach, advisor, confidant, and friend. He has provided for his students in need, buying them new sneakers, giving them work-out clothes, offering them rides in the rain. He is their to push them to be better and to do better. Mr. Harris is there to celebrate their successes through their presentations, exhibitions of learning, valedictory addresses, junior / senior prom, graduation, and beyond to college graduations, job promotions, weddings, and births. His moral compass guides him over and over again, year after year, to invest himself into the lives of the young people that he serves, to be a steward of their education, and to lead by true example. 

Comments (3)

Rayana Sumner Posted over a year ago

Thawn is the beeeessttt!! Everybody at school loves him. ????. -MET alum

Sarah McCaffrey Posted over a year ago

GO THAWNNN!!! ????

Heather Spears Olsen Posted over a year ago

Thawn has overcome many personal trials in his life. His childhood had many heartaches, and he easily could have continued in the cycles of addiction that he witnessed as a young man. Thawn chose better for himself and in doing so, he chose a better future for his wife, his children and all those he would come to influence as an educator and pillar of his tribe and community. He is such a powerful force for good. He exemplifies servant leadership, and that is what empowers him to be a “life changer” for those students who desperately need someone to show them how to rise above their own struggles. The world needs more people like Thawn Harris.