It comes in handy that Zahmu Sankofa, a middle-school teacher in Port Richmond, is a singer and songwriter: He uses his background as an entertainer to keep students engaged.

Almost three decades into a career in education, Rosemary Leslie is still inspired by the energy and charm of her South Philadelphia kindergartners, and still changing her teaching methods to meet the needs of every one.

And Alicia Conquest, who teaches Spanish in West Philadelphia, is a ball of energy who captures her students' hearts and minds with her lessons and her love.

The trio are among three of the 59 Philadelphia School District educators being honored Tuesday by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation with $3,500 awards for excellence in teaching.

The Lindback Foundation honors excellent teaching locally. Since 2008, it has awarded millions to outstanding School District teachers, who are chosen by school officials and Lindback trustees.

"People need to know that there are some exceptional educators in Philadelphia public schools," said David Loder, one of the trustees. "There are so many committed, dedicated teachers, and we're proud to recognize them."

‘It was the best mistake of my life’

Sankofa didn't mean to become a teacher. After college, he started working for the School District as an IT trainer, instructing school staff on how to use computer programs and equipment.

Then, he was laid off in 1996, and heard about a program that recruited black men to teach in Philadelphia. Sankofa had never considered that career path, but with young children at home, he needed a job, and the idea was intriguing. He earned a master's degree in education, became certified to teach English and social studies, and eventually landed at AMY at James Martin, a district middle school on Richmond Street.

"If me falling into teaching was a mistake, it was the best mistake of my life," said Sankofa, a native of Philadelphia and product of the public schools. He found that he was a natural, the kind of teacher students remember long after they leave his class.

Tasneem Motan wothd Zahmu Sankofa, a teacher at AMY at James Martin Middle School in Port Richmond and a winner of a 2018 Lindback prize.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Tasneem Motan wothd Zahmu Sankofa, a teacher at AMY at James Martin Middle School in Port Richmond and a winner of a 2018 Lindback prize.

Part of it is his ability to command a classroom — in his other life, Sankofa is a singer and songwriter who has appeared on television and movies, written jingles for major corporations, and even penned a black history anthem that became the centerpiece of an HBO campaign.

"Every day is a new performance," said Sankofa, a 22-year veteran. "It doesn't matter how you feel — the show must go on."

But part of his skill as a teacher is about his ability to open teens' minds, and the life lessons he feels are just as important as the content he teaches.

"I say, 'In order to be successful, you have to develop the ability to do the things you don't feel like doing. The people who are doing better than you are, they're not necessarily smarter than you, they work harder than you,'" said Sankofa. "And I tell them, 'You don't have to stand on anybody to be tall, just be tall.'"

Students respond to Sankofa's self-described style: "an iron fist in a velvet glove." Even in the comments on his YouTube channel, students gush over him.

"You had to be my FAVORITE teacher," one wrote. Another said: "He taught us about motivation, dedication, determination & being the boss of your own life and career."

‘The kids’ excitement is contagious’

Stand outside Room 121 at G.W. Childs Elementary and you're likely to hear singing. Or laughter.

The 24 students in Rosemary Leslie's kindergarten class learn a lot, but they have enormous amounts of fun, too.

Kindergarten teacher Rosemary Leslie playfully reacts as she reads a book to her students at G.W. Childs Elementary School in Philadelphia. Leslie is a winner of a 2018 Lindback prize.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Kindergarten teacher Rosemary Leslie playfully reacts as she reads a book to her students at G.W. Childs Elementary School in Philadelphia. Leslie is a winner of a 2018 Lindback prize.

On a recent day, students were relaxing after a literacy lesson by sitting on a colorful rug, bopping to "Vowel Bat," a song designed to help them remember the vowels.

"What's the next vowel?" Leslie asked. Multiple hands shot up, and eager little faces turned toward their clearly beloved teacher.

"'O'! Very good," Leslie called.

Leslie, an educator for nearly three decades, is motivated by the intrinsic joy of her job.

"If you're in education for this long, it better be your passion," she said. "The kids' excitement is contagious."

A native of Scranton, Leslie began teaching in the Philadelphia School District — and at Childs — 25 years ago after a few years spent teaching special education, sixth grade, Head Start, and classes for socially and emotionally disturbed children.

Kindergarten is her niche. She has taught college-level courses, serving as an early childhood instructor for Keystone College. And for more than a decade, she's trained other Philadelphia educators in teaching literacy.

That makes sense. Leslie tries to be an exemplar.

"You can't be stagnant in education," she said. "What works for one class might not work for another. The children have diverse learning styles, and you have to meet them where they are. I try to do new things, and I learn from everyone."

Leslie's days are full. She has 24 kindergartners at varying levels of school readiness, and no assistant. (She's had class sizes of 30 and above in other years.) Kindergarten has become much more academic since Leslie first began teaching it in the 1990s.

But her students still have time to sing and dance, make gingerbread houses and art projects.

"I love children and the way they learn," she said. "I love their keen insights, and the way they see the world. It's what keeps me in it."

‘They’re all cool in their own way’

How would Alicia Conquest's students at High School of the Future describe her?

Conquest laughs.

"They say I'm 'extra,'" she said, using teen-speak for over-the-top, "and crazy."

That is: She really, really cares about her subject matter, and about the teenagers absorbing it. And when their enthusiasm level doesn't match hers, she's going to do her best to make them see why Spanish is important, and beautiful, and meaningful.

Alicia Conquest interacts with her students in her Spanish class at the High School of the Future. She is a 2018 Lindback award winner.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Alicia Conquest interacts with her students in her Spanish class at the High School of the Future. She is a 2018 Lindback award winner.

"I'm always trying to learn what's going to be relevant for my kids when they leave here," said Conquest. "I try to incorporate real-life stuff into my classroom."

She invites former students back to class to help her current ones understand why what they're learning in Conquest's class is useful. When the weather is nice, she might conduct lessons outside, in School of the Future's amphitheater.

And she gets that the student resisting the charms of her lessons might be doing so for reasons that aren't immediately apparent.

"When kids don't buy in, they're usually going through something," Conquest said. "It's not necessarily about your class. You have to be sensitive to that, to work with that."

Conquest, an 18-year veteran who has also taught at Sayre High School and the now-closed University City High School, grew up in New York and was a standout basketball player in high school and at Wagner College.

She always knew she wanted to get into a helping profession, but thought at first she might study medicine. After making a friend who spoke Spanish, Conquest fell hard for the language, and when a professor suggested she switch her major to education, she knew it was the right decision.

At School of the Future, Conquest is more than a high-energy, high-impact teacher. She's an auntie, a track and field and cross country coach. She relishes the work, even when it's difficult.

"The students I teach, they are all my kids," said Conquest. "They're all cool in their own way."