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Dr. Tommie Lindsey speaks at Polk Lecture Series

Dr. Tommie Lindsey speaks at Polk Lecture Series

Dr. Tommie Lindsey

“Anyone can be a teacher...but not a lot can care.”



Fighting -- for students and for social justice.


That was the heart of Dr. Tommie Lindsey’s message “My Living Shall Not Be in Vain,” given Monday in the Chab Weyers Education & Hixson Lied Art Building. The presentation by the lauded educator and author was the fourth in the Robert L. Polk lectureship series on race and social justice.


Dr. Lindsey drew national acclaim leading the forensics teams at the James Logan High School in Union City, Calif.  His program drew many students from less-advantaged backgrounds and several ethnicities, including African-American, Asian and Hispanic. Although his students earned 40 national-level awards and many other honors, it was not about winning, he clarified; the program was about empowerment.


“I only asked one thing of all my students. ...Continue to use your voice as your drum. To fight for social justice until equity becomes the rhythm of the land.”


He gave credit to three women for empowering him while growing up in Oakland, California, and ultimately showing him how to teach:

  • His grandmother, who kept his family together when his mother died, working at age 65 to provide for them.
  • His sixth-grade teacher, who saw that he was not wearing the same type of clothing as his peers and cared enough to help. His family could not afford nicer clothes, so “she picked me up, took me to Sears and bought me a pair of pants and three shirts. I thought ‘Wow,’ this is what it means to be a teacher.”
  • Josephine Dukes, a teacher and the gracious matriarch of his neighborhood, who lived to age 106. She returned to work at age 98 after losing her savings in a scam. She told Dr. Lindsey: “Teachers don’t come from textbooks. It has to come from the heart.”


“What they had in common was being able to help somebody as they passed along,” Dr. Lindsey said.


A graduate of the University of San Francisco, Dr. Lindsey’s education career began in a county juvenile hall, teaching incarcerated students. In that tough assignment, he realized his job was simply to make the students better, a goal he would apply to each role that followed, including nearly 30 years with James Logan High School. About 90 percent of his students there were accepted into four-year schools, with many going on to successful careers.


Dr. Lindsey’s entire career -- recognized with a California Teacher of the Year honor, an Oprah Winfrey Angel Award, and a 2004 Fellowship with The MacArthur Foundation -- modeled an educator who sees a need and addresses it, said Dr. Marilyn Johnson Farr, Dwight Porter Professor of Education. “The consistency of sharing one’s time, talent and treasure has great reward when we see how our students take the lessons learned and live lives that are enriched so fully that they touch others.”


That type of enrichment could be seen in the “Life Skills” class Dr. Lindsey created at James Logan High School, a class specifically for freshmen, African American males. Its curriculum included lessons relevant to their lives, touching on racism, self esteem, equity, learning styles, leadership skills and more, using lessons ranging from the poetry of Langston Hughes to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  


At first, students didn’t think of their class of all African American males as a positive thing, Dr. Lindsey shared. “I wanted to get them out of that mindset.” He created a safe environment where students often arrived early and were comfortable talking about their lives. The students became a proud community. Test scores rose by two grade levels; the collective GPA of the class rose from 1.6 to 3.0 in a semester’s time.


The outcomes were more than academic though, his students said when interviewed in their senior year.


“Having a teacher who understood me; a black male figure, was something I never had in my life….I felt like I learned all my rights and wrongs from him, even to this day,” one student shared.


How do we incorporate the experiences of a class like Life Skills into a general education classroom? Doane students asked at the lecture’s end.


“It’s real simple. It’s like Asa says,” Dr. Lindsey answered, referencing a quote by Asa Hilliard III, professor of educational psychology. “...The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.”


Brandon Madison, a junior education major and forensics team competitor, urged his peers in the audience to take Dr. Lindsey’s words to heart and embed them in their classrooms.


“I used to think I could teach students anything if I could get their attention, and captivate them. Now, hearing his words, I know it starts by showing love and positivity,” he said after the program.