Ryan Baxter took an unusual career path: He earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, then decided to become a science teacher in the Philadelphia School District.
Doreen Coleman has spent 34 years at the same neighborhood school, 24 of them as dean of students, viewing her job not as a way to mete out discipline but as a way to change lives.
Sharon Jackson knows that teaching her students about making good choices is just as important as teaching them about math.
Despite the often tough backdrop against which they teach, Baxter, Coleman, and Jackson are three strong examples of what can be found every day in Philadelphia public school classrooms: excellence. They are among the 59 district high school teachers being honored Tuesday as recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award, which comes with a $3,500 prize from the Lindback Foundation.
"Lindback felt that it was really important to recognize and celebrate teachers' excellence, particularly in light of what's going on in schools today with the financial situation," said David Loder, a foundation trustee. "We have a lot of outstanding teachers in Philadelphia public schools who really do make a difference in students' lives."
Baxter could have become a professor. He could have parlayed his doctorate and research in the area of artificial joint replacement devices into a lucrative job in biomedical engineering.
But none of that would be as rewarding as his work as a teacher at Martin Luther King High School, he said.
"I love the daily interactions with students," said Baxter, who came to the district two years ago. "I love getting the kids to argue about classwork, to harness their energy and get them talking about the subject rather than me just telling them what to think."
Baxter, who grew up in South Jersey and came to the district fresh from his doctoral program at Drexel University, entered the district via the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, which places candidates in high-needs urban schools. He quickly fell into a groove at King, where he is now coordinator of the school's STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program.
Baxter says he loves figuring out what makes students tick, bringing hands-on projects to the classroom, varying his teaching style to students' grade levels and needs.
There are challenges - "I have such bright kids, but they don't know what's out of West Oak Lane, and that's tough. If I had an ideal situation, I would bring my students to the highest-performing schools in the city or the state, to show them what's possible," he said. But there are also lots of lightbulb moments.
Take the student who was "kind of a pain" last year, but who recently approached Baxter in the hallway to ask for help with his math homework. It showed Baxter that despite some rough patches, he had gotten through to the boy, that sticking with him paid off.
"It was such a cool interaction," Baxter said. "Those kinds of things keep me in teaching."
Coleman attended what is now Furness High back when it was a middle school. After earning a degree at West Chester University, she returned to Furness as a special-education teacher in 1979.
On paper, Coleman's job is assigning detentions and suspensions, handling student reinstatements, finding alternative placements for the toughest teenagers.
But Coleman sees herself as being in the business of "the possibilities of turning children around to a more successful way of life."
From some, that phrase could sound trite, but Coleman means it, and everyone at Furness knows that.
"I love seeing kids become responsible, productive future citizens - even the ones that I've had to put out of Furness," she said. "Kids come back and thank me for the tough love."
Coleman has worn many hats at Furness, including class sponsor, coach, graduation coordinator, and more. But her philosophy has been constant, she said.
"I respect everyone, and I demand respect back. And I don't allow today's situations and circumstances to flow in tomorrow. If I did, I would have been crazy by now," Coleman said with a chuckle.
Lamberton High teacher Jackson loves math, and wants her students to be excited about algebra and precalculus the way she was while growing up in Trinidad, and then as an undergraduate studying computer information systems at Howard University and a graduate student in education at the University of Pennsylvania.
But she knows that her job goes far beyond simply imparting the basics of those subjects. It's about meeting students where they are, about having a thick skin, about encouraging them to make good choices, about knowing when to push them and when to respect the tough things going on outside the classroom.
"It's all part of the package, especially in Philadelphia, especially in a neighborhood school, not a Masterman or a Central," Jackson said. "You have to teach, but you have to inspire.
Jackson should know: she's been a teacher for 21 years, the last 13 at Lamberton, in Overbrook Park.
Students "can size you up right away," Jackson knows. "Teaching isn't something you can pretend at."
So she's on, every day. Jackson mixes a welcoming environment - she plays music for her students - and firm expectations.
"I find different ways to get them to give me authentic work - they know they're not going to get something for nothing. But I appreciate their effort, and I encourage their effort," she said.
And even though she's a veteran, Jackson said that she's not done improving as an educator.
"Every year, I think, this year, I'm going to do it better," she said. "I'm never satisfied."