SBL’s 2011 summer program site lead and Brookview Middle School teacher Darlene Jones receives Toronto Star Teacher Award.
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Her students complain openly about the “piles of homework” they get from Darlene Jones; how she’s always “on your back,” which is “so annoying,” and apparently she “doesn’t care if you hate her; she just wants you to do your work.”
And that’s her fan mail.
Of the 10 students who nominated their Grade 6 home room teacher at Toronto’s Brookview Middle School for this year’s Toronto Star Teacher Award, not one called her a pushover.
In this Jane-Finch neighbourhood, where people often expect little of children because of the challenges they face, students have embraced a teacher who sets the bar high.
For expecting the most from her students, which educators often call the secret to helping children overcome poverty and other demographic hurdles, Darlene Jones has won the Star’s fourth annual Teacher Award over some 250 other popular teachers from across the province, a record number of nominees.
But Jones’ nominating letters were different than the kind students typically send; these talked about more homework, not less. They said she’s tough, not easy. Fun, but firm and demanding.
“At first it was kind of rough; she was on my back to work hard and come for help after school,” recalled Marcus Byro, who was in Jones’ Grade 6 class last year. “But after I stopped coming to her (free) tutoring classes for a few weeks she came to my house to talk to my Mom — I freaked out when I saw her there,” he recalled with a grin.
“After she left, my Mom gave me a big lecture and made me go back to Ms Jones for tutoring — but it really paid off; I bumped my skills way up and now I’m reading at a higher level.”
For butting into his life, the 12-year-old now calls Jones “like a mom to me; I think I would have gotten into a lot of trouble if Ms Jones never straightened me up.”
The tall, husky-voiced woman with the earrings that spell LOVE was the only black student in her class when she was growing up in Brantford. Now she is a role model in a school where students come from around the world. She chose to get her teacher training from the Urban Diversity program at York University’s faculty of education, to hone her skills at connecting with inner city students.
Jones said her goal is to instill the self-confidence that can help children handle hard knocks.
“Yes, I push them — because I know they have potential. It drives me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, those poor kids (in Jane-Finch) — they’re not poor kids. They can be whatever they want.
“I see the kids who sit in front of me as kids who need encouragement and passion and love, whether they’re rich or poor. I tell them my goal is to get you to a higher level, to dig deeper, think more critically and bump up your grades.
“But you have to meet me half way.”
Last year she and colleague Nancy Toor tried something new; a free Saturday morning program once a month during the winter for their Grade 6 students to practice the critical reading and writing skills they need for the annual province-wide Grade 6 test run by Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).
“I told them, these are skills for life, not just the test, and it’s nothing we don’t study in the curriculum,” said Jones, who volunteered her time with Toor and vice-principal Belinda Longe.
The “Weekend Warriors” mornings aren’t just cram sessions where she “teaches to the test,” argued Jones, but a bid to level the socio-economic playing field in a community where many parents work two jobs and have neither the money for private tutors nor the time to help with homework themselves.
More than half the students took part and Brookview’s Grade 6 reading scores went up 10 percentage points on EQAO this year.
“She’s hard, but she finds a way to get the homework out of us,” said Salmaan Mohamed, 12. “Even though it’s sometimes annoying in the short term, in the long term — by the end of the year — we’re better students.”
Darren Aning, who plans to be a neurosurgeon because he “likes the brain” puts it in plainer language.
“She lit a fire under our butts in Grade 6, and now our hands are flying up to answer questions in Grade 7.”
After 13 years at Brookview, Jones has seen some of her students go on to law school, med school, teachers’ college, full basketball scholarships in Ivy League schools in the United States. She knows because many stay in touch — through email, texts and visits — with the teacher who piled on the homework.