Brandon Washington: Stepping into the Role of Coach and Advocate to Help Students Learn

Since completing his teaching commitment in 2018, New Jersey Teaching Fellow Brandon Washington has continued to teach graphic arts and materials processing at Hamilton West High School. Like many teachers, he has had to change up his teaching approach with the switch to remote learning. The videoconferencing part, thanks to his technology background and the nature of the subjects he teaches, hasn’t been as challenging, he says, as the human part.

“I do a lot more mentoring now—I constantly have to put things into perspective for my students,” says Mr. Washington about how his role as a teacher has changed in the past year. “Some kids really need that social atmosphere to come into themselves. Not being in-person, they’re going to be stuck in their thoughts, and that’s not an experience you want to have at that age.”

During the first quarter of the semester, he grew frustrated staring at Zoom icons and missing the rewarding in-person interactions of the classroom. These frustrations challenged him to come up with more creative ways to make virtual teaching more engaging.

Now, he meets virtually with a small group of his students every Monday. During this time, Mr. Washington works with them to apply the tools and skills they get from his classes in practical ways. This is his favorite thing to emerge from virtual learning so far.

“I keep telling them, ‘I just want to set you all up for success. The better off you are, the better off I’ll be when I’m older,’” he says about his Monday group. One of the students is working on a book of illustrations. Mr. Washington supports her progress by providing direction and asking questions as she continues to develop her ideas. Another is using graphic arts skills learned in class to sell T-shirts. “I’ve done it. I got one,” Mr. Washington jokes. To him, it’s important to inspire his students to use their skills to create a better future for themselves and use the digital space to their advantage.

Outside of the classroom, virtual or not, Mr. Washington leads by example. As a Philadelphia native, he is constantly exploring ways he can give back to his home city, and much like his late father, he is an activist and community leader. He is currently president of the Philadelphia Club Frontiers International, an organization that works to enhance educational and social opportunities for African American youth in the Philadelphia community. Mr. Washington also sits on the board of SOSNA, a South Philadelphia neighborhood association dedicated to improving residents’ quality of life.

In 2020, SOSNA moved to a new office. When the pandemic hit and the importance of technological equity and accessibility became apparent, Mr. Washington created a logic model and started a fundraiser for the office to be turned into a cooperative workspace. He hopes this is where South Philadelphia residents and organizations can develop digital skills, build community, and gain the resources needed to work virtually with at-risk youth.

“As a result of the pandemic, access to the internet has become a necessity more than ever before. The pandemic has also shifted the job market,” says Mr. Washington. “There are a variety of community issues impacted by poverty I believe can be addressed with instruction, mentorship, and collaborative programming efforts.”

While it may take some time and financial support from those within and outside of the community to get the project off the ground, one thing is certain—Mr. Washington works tirelessly to create pathways to success for both the students in his New Jersey classroom and the young people in his Philadelphia community.


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