When Clayton County teacher Shekema Silveri won the Milken award last month, the most prestigious prize in education, another teacher commented to me, “That’s her ticket to a better job anywhere she wants.”
Silveri won’t be cashing in that ticket, saying she is where she was called to be — with students who thrive on her love and support.
“I want students who actually appreciate a teacher who loves them,” she says. “I would not be in my element in a school where students said, ‘I don’t need a teacher to love me because I have two parents and a nanny.’”
Silveri’s deep affection for her students at Mount Zion High School in Jonesboro takes many forms, from cautioning them at the start of the weekend, “Come back to me safely. I love you,” to daily texts to a teen whose mother died three years ago, “Good morning princess, God loves you, and so do I,” to shopping for groceries on Saturday for a needy student.
She gives her students her cell phone number for homework help at night and regularly engages in online writer’s conferences with them via Skype.
As winner of a $25,000 Milken Educator Award, Silveri, chair of her school’s language arts department, has now been recognized as one of the top teachers in the United States. She is married to fellow Clayton educator, William Silveri, who shares her belief that the job is a calling.
“I am my students,” she says. “I grew up in public housing after my grandmother died and I had to go back to live with my mother. I have been homeless with a 5-week-old baby. I knew that I wanted more than what I had seen in my life.”
The 35-year-old mother of four understands the appeal of more affluent schools in upscale suburbs. Silveri attended one of them under the minority to majority program, M-to-M, which allowed students from less-successful schools in south Fulton to attend higher performing ones in the north side of the county.
“I graduated Riverwood high school in Fulton County through the M-to-M program. I was getting on a bus at 6 a.m. just to get a good teacher. I promised then that if I ever had an opportunity to fix that, I would.”
Her first opportunity came through a free after-school tutorial program she began in Atlanta to work with girls ages 12 to 18, but she decided that she could accomplish more in a classroom fulltime.
In Silveri’s own life, two Riverwood teachers inspired her, Melissa Anderson and Connie Dyleski. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,’’ she says. The pair insisted she was college material and encouraged her to apply.
“My mother was on public assistance,” says Silveri. “I never even thought poor people could go to college.”
A top student in college and grad school, Silveri is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University. At her high school, she has become a teacher leader, with colleagues from Clayton and the state observing her classes. She travels this week to St. Louis to help rewrite the National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th-grade writing standards.
In giving her the award, the Milken Foundation cited her accomplishments in the classroom, noting that 100 percent of her students passed the state End of Course Test for American Literature. This year Silveri is teaching only advanced placement classes where she uses technology on a regular basis. During a recent visit to her classes, students engaged in a discussion via Skype with Megan Felt of the Lowell Milken Center about its Unsung Heroes project, which Silveri’s students are doing, and watched a documentary about an environmental activist in Africa.
In one class, after listening to a director of an area nonprofit describe his agency’s mission, Silveri marched her 25 AP students outside where they huddled in groups to figure out ways they could help. (She may use some of her prize money, she says, for a gazebo on the green so students could sit and work.)
Her students leap up to volunteer information about why they love Silveri, lining up to laud her ability to take discussions to a higher level and to connect passages in books with real-life events and personal experiences. During class discussions, students openly relate literature to their own experiences being homeless or never seeing their father.
“I tell students there will be tears. But this class is a healing place, a therapeutic place. It has to be,” she says. “The hardest part about my job is that I never get a moment alone. Even at lunch, kids come to sit and talk with me.”
So where is her therapeutic retreat?
“My place is in my van in my driveway,” she says. “I go sit in my driveway and crank up the music. But it has to be gospel.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog