When Danté Russell began his student teaching placement this winter, he was surprised to see a familiar face on the first day of class. Initially, he couldn’t quite place the man who was going to be his cooperating teacher for the semester. Then, he realized they’d taken an American government class together — more than two decades ago when they were both first-year students at Eastern Michigan University. That their paths were crossing again was somewhat “bittersweet.” It’s not like they were buddies — just two students among 200 in that particular class — so the fact that Russell recognized him at all and they were now in a classroom together felt a little like a sign he “was supposed to be there.” On the other hand, seeing a peer who had been in the profession for 20 years was about as clear a window into what could’ve been as Russell could get.
The burden of lost time doesn’t weigh quite as heavy on Russell as it once did. He’s done a lot of thinking about why college didn’t work out the first time, and in fact, it’s part of what motivated him to pursue a career in education. Born and raised on the west side of Detroit, Russell enrolled at Eastern in 1997, but he says he could never quite “get my feet planted.” A lot of it boiled down to preparation: “One of the things I remember very specifically about that time is feeling like I didn't have some of the basic skills to flourish in college,” he says. “I didn’t know how to write a research paper, or take notes, and that first semester, it was a disaster. I always felt like I was so behind, and I barely picked myself up to go beyond that.”
Russell did continue for two more years, but ultimately his academics weren’t strong enough to stay enrolled at the university. At the very end, he was living in the dorms even though he wasn’t registered for any classes, and when the university figured that out, he finally had to confront that it was over. He moved back in with his mom for about a year and half, and eventually found a good union job at the University of Toledo. Working in the shipping and receiving area, and later, food prep and catering, Russell says things started to get much more settled in his life. He met his future wife, she got pregnant with their first daughter, they got married, and eventually bought a home in Allen Park. They settled into the rhythm of family life, which was good, but Russell said it also felt a little too comfortable at times. “My wife had a good job and things were playing themselves out, but it wasn’t like I was steering the ship,” he says. “You know, you make the same 15 or 20 items in the kitchen, year after year, over and over again. It’s comfortable. It’s a routine. But there ain’t no fun in that.”
It wasn’t any one thing that pushed him to renew his college dreams. Part of it, he says, was occasionally running into people he’d graduated high school with and seeing the interesting things they were doing with their lives. At work, the 6-foot, 4-inch Russell was known for his strength, but he says he was starting to realize he couldn’t do the kind of “Herculean tasks” he used to do. One day, he sat down and calculated all the driving he was doing, and figured out he had spent 120 days of his life so far simply driving back and forth to Toledo. The sometimes 70-hour weeks he once talked about like a badge of honor now felt like they weren’t worth the money. All of it, he says, eventually led him to enroll at Wayne County Community College, and this time, things went much differently. Carrying a full course load while still working his full-time job at the University of Toledo, Russell cruised to his associate degree in two years.
Given everything he’d been through, it would seem like a big accomplishment, but Russell says his graduation for WCCC came and went “without any fanfare.” He returned to the same job he’d been working for the past 16 years, and settled back into his familiar routine. “Then one day, I was having a conversation with this older gentleman at work, Louis Jones, and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you just keep going?’ And he wasn’t saying it in an encouraging way, it was just matter of fact. Like, you got your associate degree, why are you still here? Why don’t you just keep going? And I started to think, well, maybe I should.” Soon after, Russell enrolled in the teacher preparation program at UM-Dearborn and immediately encountered a crew of professors who gave him the kind of support he didn’t get the first time around in college. He singles out Lecturer Jeff Bouwman’s endless encouragement as vital for getting him through his educational technology course, which wasn’t an easy lift for the then 39-year-old. Twenty years older than most of his classmates, he qualified for his student teaching before many of them — all while working full-time. When he graduates in a few weeks, there will likely be a little more fanfare.
Russell is being thoughtful about what happens next. In some ways, he says it would be a dream to mirror the story, albeit somewhat later, of his cooperating teacher, who grew up in Wyandotte and is now teaching at his high school alma mater. For Russell, that’s not an option. The site of Redford High School, once a grand icon of Detroit’s robust public school system, is now a Meijer. His elementary and middle schools have closed too. And after years of losing population and a wave of school closures, there isn’t even a public high school in the west side neighborhood where he grew up. “So in some ways, I feel like I missed my chance to do that,” he says. If not Detroit, Russell says there are plenty of schools west of the city and Downriver where he thinks he’d be a good fit.
In the classroom, he’ll likely be a presence, and not just because of his stature. During his student teaching, one of the things he found very eye opening was just how attached young people are to their phones. For example, during his first few days of observation, he saw one particular student not even flinch over a choice between taking a zero on his quiz and having access to his phone. “He just left the class, because it felt so important to him, he couldn’t wait 30 minutes. I find that decision making very perplexing. I mean, I don’t want to be the old man telling kids to get off their phones. But I will tell them in this life, you only get one chance. And when someone’s offering you an education, you’re not helping yourself by putting stuff in your brain that probably isn’t helping you.”
Russell knows he can’t win that argument with every student, and he certainly won’t win it all by himself. Another thing he’s taking away from his student teaching is just how much students need everyone in their lives to be involved. He said it’s often assumed that teachers are so driven that they’ll sacrifice anything for their students, a myth he finds is recycled at least once a generation in movies like Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers. The reality is teachers have their limits just like everybody else. And for kids to thrive, they need their teachers, parents and school administrators to all be pitching in and supporting each other. As a parent himself, and someone who’s the same age as many of his students’ parents, Russell thinks he’s well positioned to help build those holistic relationships. In fact, as one of his last acts of student teaching, he’s working on two letters, one to parents, one to his students. Part of his message, he expects, will be thanking them for all the amazing things they’ve added to his life. But another part will be sharing his perspectives on what’s missing in school these days, and how it’s everyone’s responsibility to step up to fill those gaps.
If all goes as planned, it’ll be his professional responsibility to do that starting this fall. He knows that won’t always be comfortable. Not like his last job. But Russell’s not looking for comfortable anymore.
Story by Lou Blouin. If you’re interested in becoming a teacher, check out our recent story about all the new things coming to UM-Dearborn’s teacher preparation program.