At James Berry Elementary, students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade flood the school with happy dispositions and a love of learning. School administrators boast their students are some of the brightest in their school district, excellent communicators, problem solvers and environmental advocates.
But it wasn’t always that way. When Thurman Nassoiy, ’03, accepted his position as a magnet program coordinator administrator over science at the school in the Houston, Texas, James Berry Elementary had a different atmosphere.
“There wasn’t laughter in the hallways,” Nassoiy said. “These were kids who always looked sad, they didn’t like coming to school.”
James Berry Elementary is an environmental magnet school. Magnet schools are public schools that specialize in certain subjects but are open to students regardless of the district they live in. This gives students options if they don’t feel like they have a quality school that is zoned to them, Nassoiy said.
As an environmental administrator at Berry Elementary, Nassoiy was hired in hopes of turning the science program around. He faced what would appear to many an uphill battle; helping children in an urban school district excel in science where only 40 percent of students passed the annual state assessment.
Nassoiy regularly met with the fifth grade students as they tracked their progress throughout the year. He asked his students what they were struggling with and offered advice on how to improve.
“I remember one of the kids saying to me, ‘you know, mister, before you came to work with us, I didn’t feel like I could do this. You always check on me and see how I’m doing and help me and we didn’t have that before,’” Nassoiy said.
Push the Envelope
His regular meetings left a lasting impact; in the two years Nassoiy was at James Berry Elementary, the school moved from an unacceptable ranking to a recognized campus with 80 percent of the students passing the state assessment.
“To go into a school like that and turn things around for kids, make them excited and make them feel like they could do it is what being a teacher is all about,” he said.
Nassoiy’s drive to change James Berry Elementary is founded in his own graduate education. As part of SUNY Oswego’s graduate education program leading to initial teaching certfication, he was first introduced to the idea of teaching for social justice and the power education has to change lives.
“That was one of the biggest takeaways when I left Oswego - teaching as a means of freeing people,” he said. “Whatever it is that holds someone back, education can really take them to heights they didn’t even think they could reach.”
“I couldn’t have had a better foundation than what the faculty at Oswego gave me. The things I do in my classroom are the things I feel are best for kids. If we always do what is best for kids, then we really can’t go wrong.”
Nassoiy now applies that foundational idea of teaching for social justice across Texas; he is an education specialist for Region 4, an education service center and division of the Texas Education Agency.
As an education specialist, Nassoiy develops face-to-face and online professional development for the state. He also sits on the advisory board for the popular (and growing) SXSWedu conference, where he was voted favorite speaker the year the conference began in 2011.
“The work I do with TEA is very humbling – now, I’m having an impact on students across the state of Texas,” he said. “I’ve had these amazing opportunities to develop new and great ideas in education and I owe a lot of that to the ‘push the envelope’ mentality Oswego gave me.”
New York State Standards
Nassoiy can only encourage other graduate students and alumni to consider moving out of state to launch their education career. The high standards New York State holds for its teachers further improves their marketability when they travel out of state.
“Houston always needs great teachers, a lot of districts are hiring because there’s a big shift in education and most Texas teachers don’t have a master’s degree or the expertise it gives you,” Nassoiy said. “I really think teachers with graduate degrees coming out of SUNY schools should consider a move, whether it be Texas or Tennessee or North Dakota.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more opportunities for teachers in the south and the west, where there is expected to be rapid enrollment growth.
As an education specialist, Nassoiy sees the skills the next group of educators need to have in order to not only stand out in the field, but to fully embrace their role in children’s lives.
“Today’s teachers need a willingness to do more, they have to modify for students with special needs, make pedagogical changes that meet new appraisal requirements and the needs of 21st century teachers, they have to come to school early and probably stay late,” he said. “You have to have this selfless attitude and be willing to do whatever it takes.”
Nassoiy moved to Houston in February 2004 and became involved in a program working with disadvantaged youth. That experience and his education helped Nassoiy land his first job as a fourth grade elementary school teacher at another school in the Houston school district at the end of the 2003-2004 school year.
“When I finished at Oswego, I felt like I walked away with the skills and knowledge to walk right in a classroom and do what I had to do,” Nassoiy said. “I learned more than pedagogy and content, I was really in touch with my beliefs about teaching and learning.”
No matter where his career takes him in the future, Nassoiy said he plans to carry his ideals that were first introduced to him at SUNY Oswego.
“When you teach someone, they carry that with them forever. Even when I’m no longer on the Earth, I know there will be children that I taught who learned a concept, then perhaps they’ll become a teacher and teach that same concept. This process continues over and over, so when you teach, you’re touching into eternity. There’s something really exciting and powerful about that process.”