TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Jermaine Watkins was fresh out of college when he returned to north Tulsa where he’d grown up and accepted a job teaching physical education at what was then Sam Houston Elementary School.
He was told the position had been occupied by six teachers in the five years before he arrived, and that made him even more determined to be a constant and reliable figure for students, the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/2p6DlTD ) reported.
Nine years and multiple higher-paying job opportunities later, Watkins is still teaching PE at what’s now Gilcrease Elementary, 5550 M.L.K. Jr. Blvd., where he and his students were moved during a school consolidation project.
“My heart is with the kids out here, and it’s going to take a lot to snatch me away,” Watkins said.
Watkins, now 34, has taken his work beyond the classroom, initiating after-school basketball and soccer programs at no cost to the school or the students.
“At 2:35 when the school bell rings, many of our kids go home to be by themselves because their parents are working,” said Tasha Johnson, principal at Gilcrease Elementary.
In the spring, those afternoon hours find a group of boys and girls chasing a soccer ball on fields outside the school as Watkins stands by, periodically blowing a whistle and addressing the kids by nicknames.
Sixty students in third through sixth grade make up four soccer teams at the school. At least 100 kids typically try out for the program, but Watkins says he has to turn students away each season because only he and Nicole Powell, a special education teacher, volunteer their time to oversee it.
“If I’m able to keep them an additional two hours (after school), it helps the parents out and it helps them out in the long run,” Watkins said. “And then the long-term effect is it helps their attendance here at school - they want to be at school because they don’t want to miss out on what we have going on.”
Sixth-grader Orion Shands and fourth-grader Damurquis Wilson were two of about 15 students at soccer practice after school Tuesday.
“If you don’t do your best in school, you either sit out a game or two or you run a lot,” Wilson said.
Watkins recalled a group of students on his first soccer team several years ago who couldn’t seem to care less about school until the opportunity to play soccer was on the line.
“This coach, if you’re acting up, he’ll take you places, but you have to change your attitude,” Shands said. “You can’t talk back to teachers or nothing. If you’re doing all of that, he ain’t gonna take you nowhere.”
Other teachers at Gilcrease have found the program to be a motivator for students not to misbehave in class because teachers report discipline and performance issues to Watkins.
“If they get in trouble in school, he holds them accountable on the field,” Powell said.
Shands said he and Wilson “go almost everywhere with Coach,” who has inspired them to be coaches when they grow up.
“I’m always looking for opportunities to get them out of this bubble they live in in north Tulsa,” Watkins said.
Those trips have included Thunder games in Oklahoma City and a basketball camp at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Watkins and Powell volunteer their time to oversee the program after school and on Saturdays, when their teams compete with other schools in the area. They work with community partners to raise donations of necessities like cleats and jerseys.
The students also help keep the programs alive by volunteering to mow the fields and work a concessions stand to raise money at games.
“There’s no excuse for them to not be able to play,” Powell said about her and Watkins’ determination to keep the opportunity available to students.
“I know I’m crazy,” Watkins said about the extra hours he works without pay. “This is what my calling is. It was very clear to me at a young age - you’re going to be a coach, and you’re going to teach somewhere. And I’m just living that out now.”
The job hasn’t come without challenges, many of which stem from teacher turnover making it difficult to build school culture and manage students’ behavioral issues and academic progress.
Johnson said the face of education would look “completely different” if every educator had Watkins’ passion.
He’s committed to ensuring students have the skills and vision to know “the world is truly your oyster,” she said.
“He could be making a lot more money, but it’s not about the money for him,” she said. “It’s a calling to ensure that students are better for the time that they have spent in this school.”
Watkins says he’s felt the push toward administration, but he resisted because he feels like he still has work to do as a teacher.
“I feel like a lot of people that are good teachers, they leave the classroom too early because they’re chasing the money, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “As long as I’m able to pay my bills, I’m fine. This is what I was called to do, so that’s why I stick around.”
Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com
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