Teaching & Mentoring: The 1-2 Punch
From the Civil War through the 1920s, Brockton, Massachusetts thrived as one of the world’s premier shoe manufacturing centers. By the 1950s, the hardscrabble city 30 miles south of Boston claimed bragging rights as the birthplace of undefeated heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Twenty years later, when Marvelous Marvin Hagler entered the ring, the city added a middleweight champion to its scorecard.
Today, though the fight motif is still in full swing around the “City of Champions,” Brockton’s greatest boast is probably its high school—the largest in New England. A beige colossus flanking the road behind the Rocky Marciano Stadium, Brockton High School houses 4,358 students and a faculty of 331 women and men. Among these educators is history teacher Gregory Hazelwood BA ‘98.
“I wish every kid in the school could have Mr. Hazelwood as a teacher during their career here,” says Brockton High School principal Dr. Susan Szachowicz. “He brings history to life. But the most important lessons he teaches are about character, how to treat other people. Greg uses every moment as a teachable moment.”
“Good afternoon!” Mr. Hazelwood greets the students heartily as they file into class. “Today we’re going to name stereotypes and we’re going to talk about how to counteract them.”
The spring-semester senior year African American History class has been underway for only a week, and it would be fair to say that all 30 students in the room are paying attention. Hands shoot up. Responses ring out. “The only way Black people can ‘succeed’ is through drugs, sports, or music.” “Black students can’t get into good colleges.” “Rap and hip hop are never about anything meaningful.”
“Good job! Excellent.” Hazelwood steps out from behind his desk. “These are the myths. Now, how can we start to shatter them?”
Over the next hour, the class ranges across American culture and history, invoking as antidotes to negative stereotyping such prominent African American figures as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Coretta Scott King. Affable and warm, with an impressive command of the students’ names so soon into the term, Mr. Hazelwood offers a stream of information and encouragement. “I want to hear your thoughts,” he says. “I want you to really think about the idea of resistance. African American history has been filled with moments of resistance to things that are not right.”
Only one point goes unspoken, although it is surely not lost on the students: Mr. Hazelwood himself belies negative stereotypes about African American men. He stands, for want of a better phrase, as a positive role model in this school in which 70 percent of the students are people of color and 70 percent of the faculty is not.
“Students need to see themselves in their teachers,” Dr. Szachowicz says. “They need to see the faces of the world.”
Like Szachowicz, educational activists and researchers have decried the shortage of minority teachers for decades. According to the National Education Association (NEA), 40 percent of the nation’s students belong to minority groups, compared to only 16 percent of teachers in grades K-12. In the eyes of many experts, this disparity represents a crisis. What is at stake? NEA research shows that “when teachers of color are missing, minority students land more frequently in special education classes, have higher absentee rates, and tend to be less involved in school activities.”
“Teachers of color have a unique vantage point in terms of the critical intersections that affect how students perceive themselves, the world, and their lived reality,” says Professor Carmen Veloria of Suffolk University’s Department of Education and Human Services.
Early role models
Greg Hazelwood understands his complex mission as a teacher of history and a member of a diverse community. He credits his parents and the Suffolk University professors who took the time to mentor him, inside the classroom and out, with giving him the sense of purpose that fires his teaching.
Growing up in Mattapan, the son of an African American father and a Haitian mother, Hazelwood appreciated the value of education from an early age. His father, the oldest of 10 children, left school early to help support his family in rural Virginia. Moving north for economic opportunity, he met Greg’s mother, whose family immigrated to New York and Boston from Haiti. Working for the MBTA and Blue Cross, respectively, Hazelwood’s father and mother provided a Catholic school education for their two children. “We want you to be in a better position than we are in,” they said. “Education is vital.”
“My parents made sure to have encyclopedias in the house. At the same time, they demonstrated an amazing work ethic, and they taught us to respect people, no matter who they are or where they come from. My sister and I were brought up with the idea of doing for others, helping. That’s how I see my role as an educator.”
Inspiration in the college classroom
Like many Suffolk students over the years, Greg Hazelwood was the first in his family to earn a college degree. “The world opened up once I hit Suffolk,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first day of the first class I took with Professor Bellinger. He told us, ‘You can be an object in the world, and have things done to you; or you can be a subject. Which do you want to be?’ He challenged us from day one.”
History professor Robert Bellinger, who also directs the Black Studies program and the Collection of African American Literature, served as the faculty adviser to the Black Student Union during Greg Hazelwood’s time at Suffolk. He has played a crucial role in the lives of many students—and students of color in particular—since his arrival on campus in 1987.
“It’s very important for students to have mentors, especially if they’re from families where they’re the first or one of the first to go to college,” says Bellinger. “I try to enlarge the scope of their vision, in terms of career possibilities, how they think about history, how they think about race and identity. I also just try to be available to listen to my students’ concerns. As they begin to engage with new ideas, they often aren’t able to discuss these ideas with people in their old communities or in their families.”
Professor Bellinger took note of Greg Hazelwood’s zeal for learning. “He was genuinely excited about history and about how it informs the present day. I would talk to him, encourage him, help him to navigate new or challenging settings,” Bellinger says. “I was conscious that I was continuing a line that goes back to the people who shaped me. When I think of professors I had in college—Asa Davis, Sonia Sanchez, and others—I know that I was given a gift. I feel responsible to carry that forward.”
For Hazelwood, Bellinger did that and more. “I learned valuable content from him, things I hadn’t known about African and African American history, about the diaspora, and about the complexity of people and time periods. Professor Bellinger was also an amazing mentor for me. He presented a powerful image, as a Black male who carried himself in a certain way, with pride and a sense of dignity. He pushed the barriers away and made himself available as a person. ‘Go on to graduate school,’ he’d tell me. Or, ‘Hey, check out this Senegalese artist’- and then I’d have a window into Senegalese culture. All of this stays with me, and I try to carry it over to my students.”
Empowering high school students
Now with a master’s degree in Education in hand, and as a seven-year veteran of the classroom, as well as co-adviser of the African American Club, Hazelwood realizes the profound impact he can have on the lives of his students. “You take it for granted, until you realize that there are younger folks looking at you as an example. I ask myself, ‘What can I do to help them?’ I can show them my passion for history and education. I can help them make connections between history and the lives they’re living today, teach them critical thinking. I try to demonstrate for them that words are powerful; words matter. Images matter. I bombard them with positive images. I am a bombarder!” He laughs and gestures toward the many posters on the walls of his classroom. “Just look around. Here’s an image of the great educator Septima Clark. And here’s a quote from Bill Withers, one of my favorite musicians.”
The Withers quote, taken from the artist’s Greatest Hits album liner notes, sums up the gentle ethos of this prized teacher in a city best known for its pugilists: “Each generation needs an art form to license male vulnerability. If maleness comes to symbolize raw competition, then how do males learn to offer love, brotherhood, and simple humanity?”
On the question of respect, Hazelwood is uncompromising. “A couple of years ago, on the first day of my African American history class, I heard a male student call out to a young lady, ‘Hey B, come here for a second.’ I took the young man aside and told him, ‘You will not be disrespectful of anybody in here, and you will not come in with that language. When we start dealing with history, you will find out what women of African descent—and all women—had to deal with, the type of degradation, the humiliation. And now you’re going to come and say that to a woman? No, that’s not going to happen.’ I ended up having a good relationship with that young man. I try to set a tone for the students, and sometimes—not right away—they come back and thank me for it.”
Through hundreds of “teachable moments,” Greg Hazelwood brings his passion for learning and justice to the students of Brockton High School. In the city that celebrates the swift uppercut and the one-two punch, he champions respectful dialogue and informed dissent.
“I will always be an educator,’ he says. “I received so much from my family and my teachers. I’m in awe of what they taught me. Now it’s time to give back.”