Geography, history, civics.
At Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh, Dennis Henderson teaches all of these, and a few things more.
“You don’t want to sound ghetto when you talk to people,” says eighth-grader Malajah Smith, quoting Henderson. “Because people would think, ‘Oh, you’re one of those black, ghetto kids.’ ”
“He tells us how to stand up straight and how you shake people’s hands,” adds student Sharae Blair.
Henderson is all about life’s unwritten rules and helping kids navigate them. He is black, as are 99 percent of his middle schoolers, most of whom also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“The truth of our society: It doesn’t matter how good you are at something,” says Henderson. “If you are African-American, you’ve got to make sure that you are extremely good to get the due recognition that you deserve.”
The 40-year-old, who came to the classroom from social work, says race and racism have always informed his teaching. Early on, he told his students: If you study and follow my advice, the world will be open to you, though it won’t always be fair — as he was reminded on June 26, 2013.
Henderson had been at a public meeting in Pittsburgh about improving community-police relations. Tensions were high. Afterward, he stood in the street by his car, talking with a news photographer. A police cruiser sped by.
Henderson yelled, “Wow.”
The car stopped, and a white officer asked if he had a problem. Henderson requested the officer’s badge number and hit record on his cellphone. The officer told him to put the phone down. When he didn’t, the officer arrested him.
Henderson was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing the road and resisting arrest. Images of him, handcuffed, hit the evening news.
“My mom said, ‘I just saw your teacher on TV.’ And I was surprised because I wouldn’t think Mr. Henderson would be on the news,” Sharae says.
Henderson spent the night in jail.
The Teachable Moment
Soon, though, the district attorney dropped all charges. The city found that the officer had acted improperly and disciplined him.
Henderson sued the city, and the city settled.
Instead of trying to hide the incident or quickly move on, the teacher spoke openly about his experience to colleagues, students and their parents.
When Henderson missed school because of legal proceedings, he carefully explained to his students what was happening. It became a teachable moment. Henderson even organized outdoor activity days with the Pittsburgh Police Department.
“If anybody was dealt with that traumatic experience, I think that they would change the way that they teach,” says Vasilios Scoumis, the school principal.
But Henderson didn’t.
“The reason I teach is a passion coming from where I’m from and seeing the things that I saw. So, all this did was amplify it a little bit more,” he says.
His students agree.
“Well, it did change. It made [his teaching] better — because he had an experience with it,” student William Taylor says. “And I think he can teach us more lessons because he had more of an experience than just reading about it.”
One day earlier this year, Henderson was preparing his seventh-grade class for a mock trial competition. After discussing the case with his students, Henderson answered questions and offered advice.
“What actually changes our society?” he asked.
“Action,” whispered one student.
“In the court,” said another student.
“In the courtrooms,” Henderson bellowed. “So it’s very important that we can go marching and protesting and being as mad as we want. But, until we actually have more of you guys working in courtrooms …”
Henderson’s voice trailed off a moment. Then he finished:
“Change will be very limited — unless you do it on your own.”