open with a young person and say, “I made mistakes. I lived a tough life, but look where I am now.
You can grow up and become even more than I
am.” Just living your life in such a way that students
understand when you say, “You can be me because I
was once you.”
You grew up in tough circumstances. What
did teachers say or do for you that helped
you believe you could achieve whatever you
It might have been more about what teachers didn’t
say to me. I don’t remember many teachers allowing
me to believe that I was gifted or that I had reached
my potential. We’re learning so much now about the
growth mind-set and fixed mind-set, but 40 years
ago, teachers I had in elementary, middle, and high
school knew that if young people didn’t understand
that failure was part of becoming successful, they
would become complacent.
I would often complain to my mother, “These
teachers, they just push me, like I can never make
them happy.” Now I understand what it was: They
wanted me to avoid that fixed mind-set.
Powerful educators like Marsha Pincus—my high
school English teacher—and others taught me that I
I wrote Marsha Pincus a letter from college and
told her that I’d enrolled in an advanced literature
course. None of my friends wanted to take this
course, but I was thinking Ms. Pincus would be
upset with me if I didn’t take it. She told me later
that she kept that letter because up until that point,
she never thought she was a good teacher. She was
a young white teacher in a high school in a tough
neighborhood who didn’t really know if she was
making a difference.
I’m the only one of my mother’s eight children
to graduate from college. Teachers would ask me
why some of my older brothers and sisters weren’t
as successful in school. They’d say, “You have the
ability to go on and do things in life and come back
and make sure other families don’t end up in the
I didn’t realize it, but that was a call to become a
teacher. My goal was to become a sportscaster, but
getting that call to become a teacher was the most
important moment in my life. Even in college, when
I talked about wanting to be an attorney, a professor
showed me data on the number of lawyers in the
country. He said, “I want you to make a difference;
think about becoming a teacher.”
After I graduated from college, I was working for
a sports cable channel. I went to a school to talk to
students at career day, and they said to me,” If you
can come in and motivate us, how come you aren’t a
teacher?” Those young people were teaching me that
I had become the kind of person that I complained
about—someone who made it out of the community,
was successful, but didn’t come back to do anything
to help change the community.
So I quit my TV job and got a certificate to teach.
I spent the next 10 years working in a middle school
in a very tough neighborhood. We lost almost 20
kids under the age of 18 to murder, many of them
from our school. I said to myself, I’ve got to find a
way to teach children that although they can choose
the behavior, they cannot choose the consequences.
That’s why I started teaching students to play chess.
What skills do students get from learning
chess? Is chess particularly helpful for kids
from poor, urban neighborhoods?
Students who play chess are critical thinkers,
problem solvers. It teaches you to think two, three,
“The first thing a teacher must do is develop
a relationship with
that child so he or she
understands that no
matter what, you’ll be