Black Male Educators of New Orleans: An Interview with Kendall McManus-Thomas
With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry education and a master’s in educational Leadership, 26-year-old Kendall McManus-Thomas is a promising young educator. He teaches high school chemistry at his alma mater, Warren Easton Charter School, as a way to open doors for students and to inspire them to pursue careers in medicine and technology. For Kendall, the spark started in 2005 when as a junior in high school, he was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and had to enroll at Lafayette High to finish high school. I interviewed him about the development of his teaching career.
Hurricane Katrina was in some way a blessing to you?
I went to my Katrina school, as we call it in New Orleans, and it was such a difference. Different for the better. It was a better education. It had better resources, which made me ask why didn’t we have this in New Orleans, We had labs—I mean nice labs. I took forensics and I learned how to be a CSI [crime scene investigator] in high school. I took civil law in high school and I experienced a lot of the things I may not have been afforded if I was still here in New Orleans. Lafayette High offered a routine and that environment showed me if you want something, get it.
Did these new classes and labs created your love for chemistry?
I hated it. I passed a couple of tests, worked diligently to obtain the hardest and proudest C that I have ever earned and I didn’t take it again. I didn’t take Chemistry II or AP Chemistry. I went on to biology because I really enjoyed it. Then, when I came to Xavier University, I took chemistry in my freshman year and began to excel at it. I excelled in the labs. I received what I needed when I was at Lafayette High to be successful. I know nomenclature, I know how to balance an equation and I know the mathematical operations that I needed to understand in order to be successful in chemistry. Katrina was a major blessing to me.
Why did you make the decision to pursue a chemistry education degree instead of just a chemistry degree?
My heart was into being a substantial and effective educator and to do that I needed the preparation. I always wanted to be an educator. I wanted to gain and grasp the concept and context of pedagogy. How do you teach? What do you teach? What are the indicators that allow you to know you’re teaching effectively? What tools and resources do you use to teach? How do you measure your teaching? What does good teaching look like?
Did focusing on chemistry education answer these questions for you?
Going the actual education route, you take several different courses that allow you to understand teaching. Teaching is more than just a lens of giving material to a student. What about a student’s psychological perspective? You take a holistic approach to teaching a child; you can’t educate a child unless you take care of somethings first about that child. You learn the hierarchy of needs that a kid must have satisfied in order to reach them. You learn the psychology of education. You learn adolescent psychology and also about the learner and their social environment, multicultural education and how to reach diverse kids. You’re going to them—they aren’t coming to you. You have twenty-five to thirty individuals in front of you and each one of them are unique.
What other experiences were part of your teaching development?
Xavier prepared us to be socially conscious educators. The education at Xavier was so holistic. Education is really soul work and it’s a work of love. If you are feeling it, you can get results. I am a very hard teacher, but my heart is in it, my feeling is in it and people know that. They know when you’re real and that’s not in a textbook. Also student teaching was the best experience of my life. It was the hardest, an unpaid internship but it was worth it. I learned the realities of education, learned how to meet philosophy with reality. That was important to me and I wish teacher preparation programs were not fading.
What is the importance of having leaders in administration who are experienced and local?
When you have a leader who has the experience and who is local and they are given the opportunity to do what they need to do, they not only give students something to aspire to but teachers as well. You begin to see the trajectory by which you can grow. An educator sees a principal who has been in the trenches, they understand these trenches, and when they come to you offering suggestions and ideas, they have been in the same situations I’ve been in with the same sort of kids I’m dealing with. It gives a different context when you have an experienced local leader. New Orleans is a very dynamic and unique place and that understanding has to be there.
How do you view the charter school movement?
I believe charters provide access to opportunity for families, for kids, for teachers, and for administrators. They give the autonomy needed to make decisions for our kids. We know what our children need and we know where we need to get them as well. We should have the responsibility to make decisions without the bureaucracy, paperwork and funneling to get simple things done. Ideally, charters should reflect their communities; schools should reflect their communities.
The appreciation I have for Kendall McManus-Thomas and countless talented and inspiring black male educators around the country is immeasurable. The images these gentlemen give to our children go a long way and lend a boost to their personal aspirations. They are appreciated for their dedication and hard work.