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Reformer Star of the Week: John Burnett


• Matt Minnick

“Mr. Minnick, Mr. Minnick, where’s Mr. Burnett?!”

It was this question—or rather the reason behind the answer to this question—that curved the tracks of my life towards a career in education policy. However, before I tell you where Mr. Burnett was, allow me to first explain who Mr. Burnett is.

Mr. John Burnett was my colleague at D.M. Therrell High School in Atlanta, Georgia. It was August 2008, I was the 9th grade English teacher and Mr. Burnett, a Morehouse Man, was the school’s new 10th grade English teacher. We were classroom neighbors and though we came from different backgrounds, we had a lot in common. We were both Teach For America corps members (myself 2007 and him 2008), we both loved a good story, and we both used self-deprecation and laughter to bring sanity to our jobs. We were friends at first site.

As the year progressed, I found myself relishing the days when my planning period allowed me to watch him teach his last period class. Mr. Burnett’s last period class was one of those “special classes” that every teacher or former teacher knows about. The kind of class where the particular names on the roster made it maddening, frustrating, and yet strangely rewarding; as if seeing a lesson plan work in that class was proof positive it could work in any class. And there were certainly days were Mr. Burnett, like every teacher of those “special classes,” struggled. But as the weather grew colder, the relationship he worked so hard to build with his students—particularly his male students—started to warm. As it did, the days of struggle came less and less. By the end of the semester, despite it being his first year, I can honestly say that Mr. Burnett was the best 10th grade English teacher in the school.

Then came the layoff. Due to attendance and budget, Therrell was forced to let some teachers go before the spring semester. And since Mr. Burnett was the last one hired, he was the first to be fired. Never mind his performance as a teacher or his rapport with his students. This was what the system dictated. Last In, First Out. Which brings us our answer to the frenetic questions coming from Mr. Burnett’s bewildered and inconsolable students: Mr. Burnett was gone.

While the students at Therrell High certainly experienced the worst of this story, I can at least tell you that this was not a Greek Tragedy. In fact, Mr. Burnett’s story is not finished at all. Undeterred from his experience, Mr. Burnett continued to teach English for several more years and is now the Dean of Curriculum at Excellence Boys Charter School in Brooklyn, NY. Atlanta’s loss was Ney York City’s gain.

I recently caught up with my friend— who’s long-term goal is to open up a network of high performing, single sex charter schools—and planned on paraphrasing some of his comments into the story. But as usual, his quotes are so passionate I would be doing him (and any reader) a disservice by not sharing the whole thing. Accordingly, here two of his gems:

“I could no longer be a bystander to young men of color being eradicated or eradicating themselves. Prior to TFA, I worked in the advertising department of a newspaper. As a result, I read a lot of news—most of which focused on tragic events encircling young black men. At times, it was overwhelming for me as a black male. I would then take a lunch break and see students skipping school. I always wondered where these kids were going and what would happen to these kids, short and long term. This consciousness of black boys’ dismal state in this country continued to build and it challenged me to do something. TFA offered me a path to directly interact with those boys who were being claimed by violence; those boys who felt they had no place in school; those boys that everyone else gave up on.”

—John Burnett on why he became a teacher

“I’ve continued working in schools because this work still matters. It’s still relevant and very much needed. I understand the different levels at which one can impact education, but what’s more direct than actually being on the ground level?”

—On why he continued working in the profession

 

Teachers are—and should be—a vital component of the reform movement. Teachers and administrators are the fingertips of the implementation arm. Great policies are exactly what they sound like—great policies. But if the people on the ground don’t buy in with a “roll your sleeves up and let’s get this done” attitude, student achievement in this country will continue to stagnate. Great policies need talented teachers to stay in the schools and put the policies into action at ground zero.

So, thank you, Mr. Burnett. Thank you for all you have done for thousands of students over the years. Thank you for inspiring me to fight to end LIFO policies around the country. And most of all, thank you for what your continued diligence on the ground level means for the larger education reform movement.


About the author


Matt Minnick

mattm@excelined.org

Matt Minnick is the Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He is a Teach For America alumni, joining the corps in 2007 and teaching courses in English and Public Speaking at the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government, and Public Policy, in Atlanta, Georgia. A native Floridian, Matt attended Florida public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University, earning a B.A. in Media Communication with a double minor in Creative Writing and Political Science. Following his years as a teacher, Matt earned a J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law, graduating cum laude. While at Florida State, Matt won a Mock Trial championship and spent a summer working for the General Counsel of the National School Boards Association. Contact Matt at MattM@excelined.org