From death row to desk rows; a lawyer turns teacher to change lives and futures before it’s too late

I already linked to this great story on a Georgia death penalty attorney turned teacher when it first appeared in The New York Times, but the piece is now in the AJC as well.

Former death row attorney trade the courthouse for the schoolhouse.

Former death row attorney Tom Dunn traded the courthouse for the schoolhouse. (David Walter Banks/The New York Times)

Among the interesting points in the profile of Tom Dunn who switched to teaching after a brush with death convinced him that he needed a less stressful line of work:

On the common thread he saw in his clients who ended up on death row:

After decades of accumulating such stories, Dunn said, he recognized a common thread: the lack of a supportive authority figure like a teacher, of a helping hand that might have meant “the difference between a good life and a ruined life.”

On why he chose to become a special education teacher:

During his training, he focused on special education, recalling that he saw learning disabilities “in nearly every case” on death row. He now works mainly in classrooms that blend special education students with the general population.

On whether he made the right career trade, if his goal was less stress:

“You can’t be a starry-eyed idealist and do defense work in capital cases for 20 years.”

10 comments Add your comment

Dr. Craig Spinks /Augusta

October 27th, 2009
2:03 am

Good for his students and Mr. Dunn! But where are more Mr. Dunns? More dads? More men?


October 27th, 2009
6:48 am

In the book “How the Poor get to College”, which looks for a common thread among the most unlikely to attend college who DID end up there, the thing that stands out is having SOMEONE, family member or teacher or social worker, who said to the student, “You can do this. You belong there.” In at least one case, the person drove the student to the college and pushed him out the door.

The common thread for both pieces is that each person needs an advocate. That used to be your parents, but far too many p arents have abdicated their role as “guidance counselor” for their children. So the schools/teachers struggle with being the advocate for 30-150 kids per year, and it can’t be done.

Sounds like a call to me for parents, male and female, to “man up.”


October 27th, 2009
6:53 am

Ms. Downey, my articulate, pity comment of last evening on teacher performance pay is still not appearing.

DeKalb Conservative

October 27th, 2009
9:46 am

You don’t see / hear stories like this too often. This was a great story to share.

Maureen Downey

October 27th, 2009
10:07 am

Catlady, There are no comments by you in spam. I sprang one last night around 8, but there are no others.

Maureen Downey

October 27th, 2009
10:09 am

Catlady, This is the comment from you that I sprang last night. It appears in the blog on using student data to rate teachers, Maureen

In an fair, objective world it would work. However, kids are not widgets. Not only are they not tuned to a fine variance, but many are actually OPPOSED to learning anything. And they don’t just mess up for themselves; they screw up the whole class.

Complicate that with tests that are not vaild and reliable. (see CRCT)

Notice that in second grade most of the CRCT is read to the student, but in third grade they are on their own. So comparing a fair cohort won’t work with that.

Add to it some schools have 70% turnover from year to year. You gonna decide about a teacher based on 8 students (who may not have moved because they lack the resources to do so),

I’d be all for pay for performance if I could get a class whose success depends mostly on my work, if they could be fairly/competently evaluated, and if the class situation could be completely controled by me: discipline and ways to meet the GPS, instead of having those decisions taken out of my hands and made by those who have been out of the classroom for decades.


October 27th, 2009
10:27 am

I am very proud for this man; however, could we have a topic that involves more people?


October 27th, 2009
12:33 pm

My husband went from probation officer to special ed teacher for many of the same reasons; plus he has always had a gift with children. He is passionate about his work and the children he deals with. But as to why more men don’t go into teaching, only one thing springs to mind: money. The pay discourages many men from pursuing the field…just the truth.


October 27th, 2009
7:52 pm

Thank you Ms. Downey. I guess my vision is going, too. Did not see that it had been sprung this morning when I checked.

Thank you for being an active participant in this blog. I look forward to seeing what catches your interest every day, even if I don’t comment.

D smith

February 19th, 2010
5:53 pm

Hi i actually, go to martin luter king middle school, he is a awesome teacher he even on a case rite now with tony Anthony davis. hopefull he helps him. he’s been i jail ever since he was 19 and is now 45. he is in jail b’ cuz of a crime he didnt convect!! the reason i kno this is because mr. dunn told me and my class.
~ hes a greate teacher!!~