By Kathy Quirk
Sometimes when he walks into a classroom for the first time, Nate Deans sees the surprise in his students’ eyes.
“I may be the first African-American male teacher they have ever seen.”
Deans, a 2010 alumnus of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, teaches English at Riverside University High School. However, he believes his work goes beyond teaching. “I try to be a motivator, an inspirer and set an example for my students.”
A Riverside graduate himself, Deans says that he feels a special responsibility to students of color who make up the majority of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. “Primarily all my students that I teach are people of color.”
Deans was inspired to become a teacher by his grandmother, a teacher and the author of one novel. “My grandmother was always a motivator. She was the first person who started me thinking about college.”
While many teachers play a role in their students’ lives, it’s especially important for African-American students, and particularly the male students, to see African-American male professionals in their classrooms, says Dean.
“I’m someone they can talk to about their lives because I’ve been through similar experiences growing up in Milwaukee. I’ve been in their situations.”
In the classroom, Deans encourages his students to draw connections between their experiences and the books they are reading. For example, in a lesson on “Farewell to Manzanar,” about a Japanese family’s life before, during and after imprisonment in a World War II internment camp, he asks students to think about parallels with their own lives.
He reads a passage where one of the authors, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, talks about how the simple loss of family mealtimes in the camp contributed to the breakdown of the family. Deans encourages his students to talk about how similar breakdowns in rituals can erode the lives of their families.
He often brings his students to UWM for cultural events and activities, which gets them thinking about the possibility of attending college.
“I felt UWM did and does a really good job with urban education. It gives students a practical sense of what stepping into an urban high school is like.”
Through UWM, he met one of his own mentors, Reuben Harpole Jr., a longtime educator and activist in Milwaukee. Deans was proud to receive the Reuben K. Harpole Jr. scholarship while at UWM. “He is phenomenal,” says Deans of Harpole. “No one becomes successful on their own. There’s always been someone before you on the path. His scholarships are crucial in motivating students.”
Dean’s wife Nyida is also a teacher, and provides ongoing support and encouragement. “Teaching is rewarding – some days it’s challenging – but overall it’s rewarding.” The Deans have three young daughters, Nyla, Nakayla and Nora.
His children and his students motivate him, Deans says. “Teaching gives me the opportunity to look at Milwaukee and see hope and change. People of color who care for these kids and see them as people and not statistics are needed in our schools.”