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A former drug dealer made good and became a Philly teacher. So why is he thinking of leaving the profession?

In his first year as a teacher, Quamiir Trice said he struggled with a lack of support and managing the needs of a large class of fourth graders alone. Up to 50 percent of all new teachers leave in the first five years of teaching.

Quamiir Trice, left, teaches a class at St. Gabriel's Hall. the disciplinary school he graduated from in 2011. Trice is leaving teaching after a rocky first year in the Philadelphia School District, he said.
Quamiir Trice, left, teaches a class at St. Gabriel's Hall. the disciplinary school he graduated from in 2011. Trice is leaving teaching after a rocky first year in the Philadelphia School District, he said.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Everybody wanted Quamiir Trice — even before he stepped foot into his own classroom.

Trice, who was locked up for selling crack at age 16, had turned his life around, and excelled at Community College of Philadelphia and at Howard University. He met President Barack Obama and attracted offers from multiple schools eager to land a rare educational commodity: a black male teacher.

He chose his hometown school system, accepting a pitch from Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in 2017 and signing up to teach fourth graders at Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia. "This all feels like a fairy tale," he said last summer.

The reality proved to be different.

"It was chaos," Trice said of his first year. He felt lost about everything from lesson plans to teaching reading. "I was just treading water; things just didn't feel good. There were so many students, and so much going on, that it was impossible for me to reach them."

Despite the frustrations, he loves teaching. But he's not sure about the nation's public education system in its current form.

So, like scores of first-year teachers, Trice is mulling plan B; he's decided to go to law school in 2019. And instead of being a shining example of a step in the right direction for the school system, he's headed toward becoming emblematic of a long, worrisome trend.

Nationally, just 2 percent of the teaching force is made up of African American men. The numbers are better in Philadelphia, where about 5 percent of teachers are black males and the school system has made a push to diversify its teacher corps. African American boys taught by black men in grade school, research shows, are more likely to graduate from high school.

As many as 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and an expert in teacher turnover. The numbers are even starker for teachers of color.

A full 55 percent of those teachers who leave do so because of job dissatisfaction, according to Ingersoll's research.

"This idea that you do teaching for a while before you get a real career — get an MBA or go to law school — that's not uncommon at all," said Ingersoll, an expert in more ways than one. He himself pursued his Ph.D. only after getting fed up with teaching secondary school.

Those who leave the profession typically don't do so because their earning prospects are better elsewhere. They do so because of a lack of classroom autonomy and voice into schoolwide decisions, according to Ingersoll's decades of research.

"It's not a pretty statistic," Ingersoll said, "but your best and brightest are more likely to quit, and [Trice's] story illustrates that."

John Tupponce, the assistant superintendent responsible for Trice's school, is clear: "The first few years are tough." He declined to speak in depth about the specifics of Trice's employment but said he and others are committed to doing what it takes to keep him, including continuing coaching and bringing a retired principal to Bethune for an additional layer of help.

"We want Quamiir to stay, to be that local hero," said Tupponce. "We're going to do whatever it takes to support him."

Trice said he felt lost in a large bureaucracy. Because of a mix-up with his paperwork, he started the year not as a full teacher but as an "academic coordinator," teaching a class with supervision. That meant the supports open to most first-year teachers weren't initially available to him.

Trice didn't realize how many extra responsibilities — paperwork, grading, supervising students outside of class time — he would have on his plate.

Bethune attracted national attention for its success in hiring African American male teachers — a full 30 percent of its staff last year was made up of black men. That was encouraging, Trice said, but he needed more. When Trice's certification did come through, no new-teacher supports came until he advocated for them months later, and by that time, he felt as if the year was lost.

Trice was always interested in education policy work, and law school was a possibility someday, but after his tough first year, that took on more urgency. He will take an LSAT prep course this summer and teach this coming school year, possibly outside of Philadelphia. He might become a criminal defense attorney eventually, he said.

Sharif El-Mekki, the principal at Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus and a founder of the Fellowship, a nonprofit organized to recruit and support black male teachers in Philadelphia and beyond, said he hopes he can talk Trice into delaying law school, but knows the odds he faces.

"New teachers are most vulnerable to the challenges of education," said El-Mekki. "One of the best ways that we serve our students is by supporting those who serve the students directly."

Trice grew up in North Philadelphia, the restless son of a father who was locked up on robbery and murder charges when Trice was a baby. He eventually flunked out of Roxborough High School at 15. He dealt drugs, lost friends to violence, and eventually got caught by police.

In 2010, when Trice first sat in principal John Mulroney's office at St. Gabriel's Hall, the Montgomery County disciplinary school for adjudicated boys from Philadelphia, Trice told Mulroney he was going to excel at school, then go to college. Then, he did both of those things, first finishing as salutatorian at St. Gabe's and delivering a speech Mulroney still keeps a copy of in his files.

So when Trice was feeling low after a tough year teaching in his hometown district, he called Mulroney wondering if he had a summer teaching job available.

Mulroney, who did have a summer math position open, nearly wept with joy. He had followed Trice, and kept in touch with him.

"He was welcomed like royalty," Mulroney said. "His interview was a formality."

For Trice, the differences between teaching in a large district and a small school — St. Gabriel's is a residential school for boys 10 to 18 and has fewer than 150 students — are night and day. He's able to connect with students individually, to focus on each one fully, and those connections have made the actual work of teaching math much more successful, he said. And the contact with Mulroney and the rest of the staff has been a revelation.

"It put me back in a positive space," said Trice, who teaches in neat shirtsleeves with his tattoos peeking out. "I needed to hear that I had value."

Trice was initially worried about teaching at St. Gabriel's. Would students respect him? Would they think he was too close to their own age?

He needn't have worried.

"From the moment Quamiir first spoke to them, they were hanging on every word, paying rapt attention," Mulroney said.

And whatever form the next stage of Trice's professional life takes, he said he knows mentoring others will be a part of it.

"I tell the kids, 'God's gift to you is your story,' " Trice said. "Your gift to him is the way that you use it."