Former Banker 'Makes Learning Math Fun' in New Job as Elementary Teacher
BRONZEVILLE — Vernell Slaughter realizes he is a rare commodity within Chicago Public Schools: a black male who teaches math.
Only 5.7 percent of CPS' 22,283 teachers are black men, and fewer teach math, CPS officials said.
But the 33-year-old middle school teacher said he's happy he beat the odds and is now working at Crispus Attucks Elementary School, 5055 S. State St.
"It is always good to show people they were wrong about you and your chances at success," said the Washington Heights resident. "I love what I do and feel I have made a difference in the lives of my students."
Student Akilha Truitt, 12, is one of the students whose lives he has touched since he came to Attucks last August after six years of teaching.
"He does things better than other teachers," she said. "He gives us examples to show us how to get the answer to problems. Mr. Slaughter makes learning math fun, and not all teachers can do that."
Teaching math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders was not the career path Slaughter started on after earning a bachelor's degree in math and computer science from Augustana College in Rock Island.
He originally went to work as a loan specialist, but eventually lost interest. He then went back to school and earned a master's degree in education from Dominican University.
"My first professional job was working as a loan specialist at a bank. It was a job I had come to love, until one day it was not exciting anymore," he said. "Working with children is something I have always thought about but did not develop an interest in until after college."
Slaughter, a Whitney Young High School alumnus, said anyone interested in teaching should be passionate about helping children.
"If you truly do not love working with children you will not last long in this field, especially teaching in an urban school district," said Slaughter, who once lived in a public housing complex on the West Side. "As a father, I am a teacher seven days a week, and that helps me transition into my role as a teacher when I come to work."
What Slaughter said he likes most about his job is when former students return to tell him how well they are doing in their high school math classes.
"I have had students come back to the school to tell me how they are among the few students in their math classes that understand fractions or algebra," Slaughter said. "That makes me feel good, knowing that I prepared my students to compete with other kids who may have attended higher- performing schools."
Some Attucks students said Slaughter is their best teacher.
"He teaches us a lot. And when he teaches, you can see the excitement in his eyes," said Ashley Wilson, 12. "Mr. Slaughter is a good teacher because if you do not understand how to do a problem Mr. Slaughter will show us how to do it and how to understand it."
Slaughter said his inspiration to become a teacher stemmed largely from Diane Brown, a former science teacher of his at Nathan Goldblatt Elementary School on the West Side.
"She always encouraged me to do better and praised me when I did,'' he said.
"That's what a teacher is supposed to do," said the husband and father of a two. "She came to my high school graduation to support me."
He said he has tried unsuccessfully to find her since he left the school.
"If I could find her I would tell her thank you for being such an inspiration in my life," he said.
He also credits Attucks' co-principal, Ketesha Melendez, for grooming him even further.
"She is a former math specialist and knows what she is doing. From day one, she has been supportive and helpful in encouraging me to do what is needed to be a better teacher," said Slaughter. "I am glad she is here."
Melendez, who joined the Attucks staff in January, previously was principal of Earle STEM Elementary School.
Attucks is scheduled to close after the 2014-15 school year, but Slaughter said he plans to continue teaching.