Teacher: “Let me get a …”
Students: “… chopped cheese.”
Let the lesson begin.
Anthony Chin Kee Hee, a third-year high school English teacher at the Bronx Latin School, lets his classes create their own call and response. (This one refers to a popular Bronx sandwich.)
It’s his way of making sure “they have no excuses. They picked it, they say it and then they’re quiet and I get to teach.”
And it’s one way he creates a culture of respect. “We have respect because I keep a balance,” he says. “Yes, we can joke and laugh and have a great class together but if I’m giving a lesson, they should not be talking.”
He also makes it a point to get both sides of a story. “At the start of the year, I ask, ‘What has your experience in school been? What can I do to help?’” When there’s a problem, he automatically hears the teacher’s or dean’s side, but he makes sure to hear the student’s side, too.
He tries to create a more student-centered classroom, occasionally letting the students teach as part of presentations. “They really like it,” he says, and they experience the struggles as well as the rewards. “They see that not everybody’s going to be quiet when you start talking.”
Chin Kee Hee, who worked as a paralegal and in foster care before becoming a New York City Teaching Fellow, grew up in Ravenswood, a city housing project in Queens. He got involved in a Leaders Club at the local YMCA to stay out of trouble. “I was surrounded by mentors,” he says. One of them “used to tell us we don’t have to be a product of our environment. Just having somebody tell me, ‘Hey, you’re worth it; you’re smart enough’ — that alone changed my life.”
His involvement in the club crystallized for him that his passion was to work with children. “If I could affect somebody the way that program affected me, then my life has purpose,” he says.
Soon after starting at Bronx Latin, a student asked Chin Kee Hee to start a Brotherhood program for young men of color. “Everybody told me your first year you should just focus on being a teacher,” he says. But there was a need and, with his background, he could relate.
Now in year three, the Brotherhood meets twice a week to “talk about mental health and school and life issues. It’s a safe space.” Members discuss problems and goals, they watch inspirational movies, they make college visits, and they adhere to values such as behaving in school and keeping up with classwork.
“My first year was rough,” says Chin Kee Hee. “Honestly, I think the Brotherhood helped me more than it helped the students. It’s a therapeutic environment.”
No one is penalized for “messing up,” he says. The point of the group is to help. And the help continues after graduation because they are building a lifelong support network. “We say Brotherhood is forever,” he says.
The relationships he has built with his students enable Chin Kee Hee to be an effective educator. “Instead of managing behavior for 40 minutes, I can teach, because the majority of them respect me and are comfortable enough,” he says, to talk to him instead of acting out.
And the best part? “Every day I go to work and have a genuine smile,” he says. “As hard as it is, I have a heartfelt laugh. I don’t know any other profession that can give you that.”