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Harper High School Teacher Loves a Challenge

By Wendell Hutson | February 18, 2013 6:56am | Updated on February 18, 2013 11:06am
 Desarae Taylor, a 15-year-old sophomore at Harper High School on the South Side, takes a break between classes to talk to World Studies teacher John Thuet.
Desarae Taylor, a 15-year-old sophomore at Harper High School on the South Side, takes a break between classes to talk to World Studies teacher John Thuet.
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

ENGLEWOOD — John Thuet said he's not surprised that after four years of teaching at Harper High School he still has no desire to leave despite the many challenges the school faces.

"This is an amazing place to work. I love what I do, and that's teaching children new things, which is not an easy task," said Thuet, 28, who teaches world studies to freshmen and is chairman of the school's history department. "I had great teachers during my time in school and it played heavily on my decision to become a teacher instead of an architect."

The husband and father of a 5-year old son lives in Hyde Park, but said he is part of the Englewood community where his students hail from.

"I have learned a lot from these kids, who come from troubled homes and travel through gang territory every day to come to school," Thuet said. "One thing that amazed me about the kids here is their generosity. If a kid has a bag of chips he will offer everyone in the class [including Thuet] some, even though he might not eat anything else for the rest of the day."

The challenging part, though, is getting students up to speed through remedial classes.

"A lot of students are not good at reading when they first come here from elementary school. But I work with them to build up their comprehension skills [so] we can move on to doing actual high school work."

Assistant Principal Dawn Syndnor-Cole agreed.

"This school is a 'turnaround' school, so a lot has changed since it was turned around in 2007," she said. "Remedial classes are the norm here for many students who come to us weak in math and reading, but we have made great strides in getting them where they need to be [academically] by the time they graduate."

According to Chicago Public Schools data, 98 percent of Harper's 510 students are black, 93 percent of students come from low-income households, and the school is currently on academic probation. The school could accommodate up to 1,000, Syndnor-Cole said, but fewer students means smaller class sizes.

"The average class size here is 22 students," she said.

Despite the challenges, Thuet said he is determined to make a difference in the lives of students. Last year, he took a 16-year-old student to visit his alma mater, Loyola University Chicago.

"That was definitely one of my best highlights as a teacher," Thuet said. "To see the look in her eyes when she walked around campus and saw how college life is up-close, was a priceless moment."

But one of the low points also came last year, when a student pushed him as he tried to persuade him to stop arguing with another student.

"He asked me to move, and I wouldn't. In fact, I got in between him and the other student to prevent a fight from breaking out, and that's when the student shoved me to the side. I was not injured, and security swiftly took control of the situation," said Thuet, who added that he is not intimidated by the violence that plagues the neighborhood.

After graduating from high school in St. Louis, Thuet earned a bachelor's in history from Loyola and a master's in American history from an online college. His wife teaches fourth grade at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School in Hyde Park.

"This is not the job for someone looking to pass time. You must have a passion for helping people and a drive and energy for working with young people," he said.

"I tell my students considering a career as a teacher that it may not pay much, but it allows you to learn from others, teach people new things and make a lasting impression on someone who could go on to be president of the United States."