NaShonda Cooke likes to show the fourth- and fifth-grade boys in her Men of Honor club pictures of her two brothers – a stark example of how a boy’s choices can change his life path.
One, in a U.S. Air Force uniform, worked security for Air Force One. The other is seen in a mug shot, a wanted man with a long criminal record.
Cooke, a teacher at Eno Valley Elementary School, has directed the club for seven years, helping to equip hundreds of male students with the tools they need while also exposing them to new ideas, people and places.
Mentors and tutors, including medical students from UNC-Chapel Hill, make regular visits, as do men from a wide variety of careers. The club visits colleges and has been to the White House. They discuss coping with conflict and the perils of drug abuse, and they try new activities from chess to wrestling.
Her brothers exemplify what’s at stake as these young students start to face tough life choices.
“They had the same household, the same rules and experiences, but they made different decisions,” she says. “I want to help all my boys understand that the decision is in their hands.”
Cooke also writes and speaks widely on other topics, including her own experience as the mother of a special needs child and a teacher who works long hours for low pay. This weekend, she’s speaking at a panel on the importance of mentoring.
Melanie Williams, an Eno Valley teacher whose son is in the club, says Cooke makes a difference in the lives of the boys who participate. She sees them widen their interests beyond basketball to the point where they were cheering on her son, Rodney, who twice won the school spelling bee.
She sees them meet people and visit places they wouldn’t usually see. But mostly shes sees a newfound respect for themselves, their teachers and one another that she hopes they’ll bring with them to middle school.
“It brings about self worth,” Williams says of the club. “You see a different kind of behavior and a different attitude when they’re in the program. They feel like they can be honored and celebrated for using their minds, not just throwing a ball.”
Teaching always her plan
Cooke grew up in Mississippi, the oldest of five children in a family that traces its history of teachers back eight generations. Her grandfather was active in the civil rights movement, a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Her father was a professor, but she was raised mainly by her mother, who struggled to raise a family on a teacher’s salary. Cooke says she and her siblings had little money, but were taught to value their talents.
“I know what it feels like to be poor and only get whatever opportunities are left over,” she says. “But our mom always told us ‘You are not average. You can do anything you want to do.’ ”
She did well in school, and immersed herself in after-school activities. As it is for many of her students, school was a refuge.
“I was always involved in something outside the home because I wanted to be outside the neighborhood, which wasn’t always safe,” she says.
She went to college in Pennsylvania, and chose to move to North Carolina afterward largely on a whim. Much of her family has since joined her.
Teaching was always her plan. She remembers as a child tagging along with her mother, who taught special education students everything from math to filling out a job application to brushing their hair and shaving.
Cooke started out teaching special needs students, but changed course when her own daughter was diagnosed with autism. She moved to counseling, was an administrator, and taught at several levels so that she would be better able to care for her own daughter.
“It’s difficult to work all day with students who need so much from you and then come home and do it again,” she says.
Speaking up for the families
Cooke was working at another school when she was hired to teach literacy for Men of Honor; she took over the program after its first year.
Eventually, she took a teaching position at the school to be closer to the boys in the club – an unusual career move from a more affluent school to one with a high percentage of poor students.
She hopes by catching students while they’re younger she can help them deal with the pressures of adolescence.
“I was working with these students (at middle school), and I’d think if someone had stepped in before now, and taught them coping skills and strategies to make better choices, they wouldn’t have these problems,” she says.
The club meets every Monday, and usually has about 50 members. She manages a small budget that is spent largely on snacks and transportation; getting the boys to and from meetings is key to keeping the club active.
She teaches them how to work through anger without violence, and also shows them examples of what they can accomplish. She brings in regular guest speakers from different professions, such as CEOs and architects, and encourages them to consider their own future careers.
“At this age their minds are wide open to the possibilities,” she says. “Some of them still want to be rappers or NFL and NBA players. I want to expose them to other occupations. Even if they aren’t making the highest grades, it helps to have someone come in and look like them and say this is what your life can be like.”
Other messages support those goals. One is to know they are being defined by their behavior and decisions by asking them what they think someone thinks of first when they say the student’s name. If it’s a negative image, they might be missing out on opportunities.
But she also teaches them that they should not be defined by their upbringing, and celebrates their achievements.
“I want them to understand what it feels like to be honored and appreciated,” she says. “So you don’t have a lot of money, or your siblings didn’t go to college. That doesn’t mean you can’t go.”
And she involves them in service. Earlier this month, her boys led a workshop for other students on showing respect and made birthday cards for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
She says she regularly hears from people hoping to recreate the club at their schools, and is helping out with a similar group for girls that a co-worker started.
Cooke writes widely about education, and has been published nationally on the topic. She also speaks frequently about that and other topics and is active Moms Rising, a nonpartisan group that advocates for public policies that benefit families, and Women AdvaNCe.
She says speaking up is a skill she would also want for her students.
“There’s a lot of kids and moms and families that don’t have anyone to speak for them,” she says. “That’s never been my problem.”
Born: June 1975, Mississippi
Career: Teacher and director of Men of Honor, Eno Valley Elementary School
Awards: Teacher of the Year, Glenn Elementary School, 2008; Teacher of the Year, Eno Valley Elementary School, 2014
Education: B.S. Education, Edinboro University, Pennsylvania; M.Ed. Special Education, UNC-Chapel Hill
Family: Daughters NaVia and Victoria