For as long as he can remember, Charles Fowler wore resentment like a shield. Addiction dragged his parents through jails, rehabs and out of his life. School seemed meaningless compared to the chaos that tore his family apart.
In class, he would isolate to cope. If prodded, he pushed back. Teachers unable to control him would simply dismiss him. Administrators—nameless and faceless in his memory—memorialized every misstep in a thick file.
So when Maria Alaniz, his sociology professor years later at San Jose State University, asked Charles to write about his experience at school, his defenses shot up. He wrote it anyway. And when she asked for permission to read his essay before the class, he agreed but braced himself for ridicule.
It had the opposite effect.
“She reads about how the schools never supported me,” Charles recalls, “and everyone is aghast. I realize then that the majority of people who made it to college had a positive experience in school. Maybe the problems I went through were problems with a system that fails young people going through trauma.”
That candid indictment of public education inspired him to become a part of the system and improve it from the inside.
“I wanted to become the kind of teacher I wish I had,” said Fowler, 28, who holds a Master’s degree in Urban Education and Social Justice from the University of San Francisco.
At Yerba Buena High School in San Jose, Fowler teaches the full spectrum of students, from advanced-placement over-achievers to those recovering enough credits to graduate.
Since coming to the East Side campus in 2011, he has elevated the profile of a social learning class for struggling students called 180 Degrees. Using his own story as a bridge, Fowler builds relationships with students facing similar battles: violence at home, trauma, drug abuse and poverty.
Most weeks, Fowler spends up to 20 hours of his own time to connect with their families and connect them with their community. Leveraging his network with nonprofits and outside organizations, he would take students to San Jose Giants games, events at Mexican Heritage Plaza or to volunteer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. By teaching students about where they came from, he has inspired them to lead campaigns to feed and clothe the homeless and clean up blight.
But it takes time and work to build a relationship with students—many of Fowler’s students put up defenses just like he did in high school. At the start of each school year, he makes customized notebooks for each person in class. He stocks up on binders, pencils, paper, erasers and other supplies paid for out of pocket or through donations he collects. Every day, he gives out snacks. Throughout the school year, he gives them books tailored to their interest.
“These kids have so little,” Fowler said. “So even that little extra thing can keep them going, whether that’s a notebook or those immaterial things that you can’t buy, like your time and attention. By giving them what they need, they start to care.”
Last year, one of his students who lived too far to walk to school couldn’t afford the bus. Fowler talked to Yerba Buena administrators, social workers and outside community groups to find out if there was a program that could foot the student’s bus fare for the whole school year. The student didn’t qualify for any of them. Unlike in San Francisco or other major cities, San Jose has no free transit program for students. So Fowler bought him a $200 Clipper card on the condition that he pay it forward by helping other students and never skipping a class.
“Some students accept me from the start, they’re ready to learn,” Fowler said. “Others want to test me. That’s the difference between equality and equity—some kids need more.”
By giving so much of his own time and resources, Fowler can ask for a lot back from his students. Kids who otherwise would have dropped out or skipped class will show up because Fowler gets to know them too well. Rather than suspending anyone, he works out a way to keep students in the classroom. They show up because Fowler gives them autonomy and respect.
“For a lot of these kids, they’ve already been burned by the system,” Fowler said. “They’ve already been written off. You have to show them their own talent, teach them value their own experience. I can hold up a mirror to show that they might see themselves in this way, maybe their family sees them in this way, but look at what happens when they jar that perception. Look at what happens when they start to care. Look at what happens when they grow their own food or feed the homeless. It’s a total shift from what people expect of them.”
In 2014, Fowler’s peers voted him Teacher of the Year at Yerba Buena and then for the entire East Side Union High School District. Months later, he won the same distinction from the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The accolades came at a critical time, as exhaustion and doubt began to creep in.
“It was intense,” he said.
Going into his fourth year at Yerba Buena, Fowler is as much a part of the community as the kids he teaches. To afford rent, he lives with a revolving cast of roommates in the same low-income neighborhood as some of his students. Most of his possessions are books and clothes and a used car he saved up three years to buy. He’s used to the spare lifestyle. Once his grandma adopted him at the age of 10, he slept on the living room futon of her mobile home through college. In grad school, he slept in his car. It took years to overcome his shame of poverty, an experience that now helps him connect with his students.
“You learn to live really simply,” he said. “That’s what my grandma taught me.”
Other teachers in Fowler’s circle have to commute from hours away, live with their parents or depend on a higher-earning spouse. At least, he said, he gets to immerse himself in the community. The house he rents with two other teachers has become a gathering space for students who want to build garden boxes or paint posters for a clothing drive.
“It’s hard not to take the work home when it means more than just work,” Fowler said. “If you peel back the layers, all learning is relationship.”
The East Side Teachers Association sponsored this post.