High hopes, high energy: Detroit teacher leads with flair

At the beginning of every school year, while other teachers are going over their first day lesson plans minute by minute, Pamela Harris-Hawthorne has a different goal.

In fact, for the first couple weeks at Detroit Innovation Academy, Harris-Hawthorne doesn’t teach her fifth-graders a thing.

She’s too busy getting to know them.

“Once you know them, you got ’em!” says Harris-Hawthorne, 48. “Don’t worry about what you’re teaching at first. What’s the point? Who cares? They don’t even know your name yet, and you’re rattling off, `What’s 20 times 20?’ on the board? Scratch your lesson plan. Do team building activities, eat lunch with them. How do they learn? What are they interested in? Once you get to know that student and their parents, you have that student’s attention for rest of school year.”

Harris-Hawthorne’s enthusiasm for the learning process began in childhood. Growing up in a single-parent home in Detroit, she ran, from the age of 9 until well into her teens, “Pam’s School” – a backyard school for all the neighborhood kids.

But when there was no money to go to college for a teaching degree, she went into banking for several years -- until she fell ill with lupus and went on disability.

The following 10 years at home were depressing for someone so gregarious.

In 2004, at her doctor’s suggestion, she enrolled at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  She graduated five years later and joined the faculty of the University Prep charter school to teach seventh grade math and science.

University Prep Superintendent Margaret Trimer-Hartley* once asked a teacher consultant to find out what makes Harris-Hawthorne tick, and then find more teachers just like her.

"She's phenomenal,” said Trimer-Hartley, who is now superintendent of the school. "She's the kind of educator who took on every challenge with joy and never complained; who took on every student with love and never complained; who accepted every parent and every issue with the most positive attitude I've ever seen.

“Pamela was always upbeat and confident her students could be successful. And therefore, her kids were some of the highest-performing kids in our little building at that time."

Changing lives, one at a time

One year, seventh-grader stayed after class on the first day of school, and started crying after telling Harris-Hawthorne she was stupid in math.

“I said, `Madison, you’re not stupid. If you trust me, I will help you and pull you through this math. But keep in mind I’m going to be hard. I’m going to make you work for it, so you know you can do it on your own.’”

Within a few days, however, Harris-Hawthorne received a call from Madison’s mother, who said she didn’t want her daughter in her class anymore because she was too tough.

“I said, ‘OK, you can move her. But understand that I push her because I see something in her. If you give me time, you’ll see.’”

Madison stayed put. And by the end of the year, Madison was not only on the honor roll, but a tutor in that math class.

Today, Madison Coates is a sophomore at Cass Tech High School, and says math is one of her favorite subjects.

“Mrs. Harris had a dramatic impact on my life,” said Coates, 16. “Before, I just didn’t get (math). She helped me a lot, gave me insights, stayed after school with me. She made all the difference.”

Price was, indeed, right

Teachers can get burned out, especially when children who may experience severe financial and social problems at home are struggling in school.

"But she kept the rest of us from burning out, and it all gets back to attitude," said Trimer-Hartley. "She has the most positive attitude on things - a can-do, will-do, must-do kind of attitude, and that permeated among the rest of us."

She said Harris-Hawthorne loves to tell stories to connect with her students.

One of her favorites is of the time Harris-Hawthorne fulfilled a long-held dream to appear on “The Price is Right.”

After practicing winning facial expressions in the mirror and telling everyone she knew that she was going to win, Harris-Hawthorne flew by herself to Southern California and waited in line for two days.

Meanwhile, she says she got to know (and dance in the rain with) all the other hopeful contestants, so when she actually got chosen, won her game and then won her showcase, the entire audience joined her on stage – just as she had asked them to do prior to the show.

“I tell my students, ‘I believed I was going to be on that show and I studied how to do it, and I was. And I won. I tell every single class this: There is nothing -- nothing -- you cannot accomplish if you put your mind to it.”

New challenges, same energy

In 2012, Harris-Hawthorne left University Prep, moving first to the Detroit Leadership Academy and then to the Detroit Innovation Academy.

DIA DLA Principal Lawrence Hood says it was not uncommon for a parent to pop in after school at 3:30 p.m. to see Harris-Hawthorne and not leave until 5.

"At our school, parents pick up and drop off," said Hood. "But her parents come into the classroom every day. They come in, and she gives feedback about how they're progressing, so they get immediate feedback every day."

He said Harris-Hawthorne's ability to build relationships with  students and families has been a tremendous marketing tool for the school because those parents are telling other parents about her.

"She meets all the children where they are, and brings them up to where they need to be," said Hood.

Many teachers complain that it’s tough to get parents involved. Not Mrs. H-H.

“When I sit down with them at meeting, I get to know them first and explain my passion for their children,” she said. “ When I speak, I speak only about your child. `This is what I’d like for your child. What do YOU want for your child?’”

Harris-Hawthorne lets her students know about her own struggles, as well. For instance, she has corneal dystrophy, which means a layer of the cornea has clouded over both eyes, impairing vision.

Or, as she cheerfully puts it: “I can’t see a lick!”

It’s why she sometimes uses a magnifying glass to read and holds papers an inch or two from her face to grade them.

She’s had one cornea transplant, but her vision fluctuates, and needs a second operation.

But that just means the students can relate all the more, she said.

“And I teach not just to certain students,” she said. “I teach all learners -- visual, audio, and tactile learners. Everybody.”

In her spare time, she likes collecting scrapbooking material (though she has yet to actually sit down and scrapbook), and going to the movies.

She and her husband, Gary, a senior systems analyst at AT&T, live in Commerce with their adopted daughter, Shakala, 17. The couple also have an older son, Jeffrey.

And what would she say to people considering a career in education?

“You have to have a passion for children,” she says. “If you’re doing it for a paycheck, get out of it. Because you’re not going to educate anybody.”

Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.

* Margaret Trimer-Hartley is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

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Thu, 03/28/2013 - 9:23am
What a lovely woman.
jan stewart
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 10:22am
What a GREAT TEACHER. Can we clone her? We need more teachers like her. We wouldn't have as many failing students or schools.
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 10:41am
I would love to see her next move in a position to 'TRAIN THE TEACHERS' that are entering their last year of college. What a wonderful world of academia it would be!
Jeff Harris
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 11:58am
So very proud of you mom! :)
Phillip Hamberg
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 12:46pm
The article made a huge error in paragraph # 2 ! It says Pamela Harris-Hawthorne in the first couple of weeks does not teach her fifth graders a thing. In fact she is teaching THE MOST IMPORTANT "thing" there is: namely how to relate, form a relationship and acknowledge the value of each individual. Bless you Pamela, you know what is important in "Teaching" !!
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 5:43pm
Teaching isn't easy. Its knowing your subject, having a sense of humor and getting to know and understand kids. In 35 years i asked kids what is about a teacher that you like and helps you to learn. Don't make fun of me, laugh with me and at yourself. admit when you are wrong, don't say that is a stupid question, when you ask how am iI doing listen to me answer. Call their parents and get to know them the best you can and if humanly possible try to visit soome of their homes. Surround yourself by good positive peers. Good luck. YOu will need all the help you can get. Oh yes and don't forget to ask others about their successes.
Sun, 03/31/2013 - 1:14pm
To Ms. HH and the thousands of good teachers all across Michigan, thank you for all you do every day. Each day you go to school knowing you have the power to change a child's life forever. Thank you for honoring that power and for what you do with our children.
Sun, 03/31/2013 - 1:50pm
Wooo!!! Go Pam!