By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – As Tupelo teachers gathered for the first time before the upcoming school year on Monday morning, they were reminded of the impact an educator can have.
They met a former gang leader and the teacher he credits with changing his life.
Picayune High School oral communications teacher Donna Porter and her former student, DJ Batiste, were the keynote speakers of the Tupelo Public School District’s 2013 Opening Ceremony at Tupelo High School’s Performing Arts Center.
The event marked the official return for Tupelo teachers and other staff members in advance of next Monday’s opening of school.
When he entered Porter’s classroom in 2009 on the first day of his senior year, Batiste admits he was more interested in attention than education. He intentionally arrived 15 minutes late, interrupted the teacher’s introduction, asked her if she was married and suggested she cheat on her husband.
“I took a deep breath,” Porter said. “I had the skills to deal with this, and I knew I could.”
The teacher praised her student’s charisma and told him she had a job for him. If he could arrive to class on time, he could serve as a greeter for all those who entered her room. She would even allow him to open each class with two to three minutes of remarks.
The next day, Porter heard Batiste tell students about his new role as he moved toward her classroom.
Students win most confrontations with teachers, Batiste said, because they are often seeking a reaction that gets them the notice of classmates.
“I took my first loss that day because a teacher realized I have to notice him instead of judging him,” he said.
The student who once doubted he would live to see his 21st birthday graduated from high school that May. The 22-year-old is now a student at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“It took one teacher to believe in me and to love me and to really have my back, and I graduated,” he said.
Porter, who was nationally recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, credited Becky Bailey’s “Conscious Discipline” approach that emphasizes self-discipline and social-emotional learning.
“All behavior is purposeful, and as a teacher, you need to try to find out why instead of thinking about how can I punish,” Porter said. “Change the mindset to how can I teach the missing social-emotional skills.
“Also, you need to see it as an opportunity to teach. We can’t wish away conflict. It will happen.”
Rankin Elementary gifted teacher Sherry Willis called the message “inspirational.”
“All children are different, and you can reach every child by building relationships with them and teaching the whole child,” she said.
Rankin fourth-grade teacher Krystle Scales said the message was relevant for situations educators deal with today. “We need to think about every child and not use fear and intimidation, but connect with them,” she said.
The presentation was a good way to set the stage for a new year, Superintendent Gearl Loden said. “Even with all of the changes in education, it all goes to teachers in the classroom connecting with students,” he said.
Tupelo teachers will attend various training sessions over the next three days and will be free on Friday to organize their classrooms.