When Michael Gebreslassie came to California last year after spending his early teaching career in Japan and his home country of Eritrea in Eastern Africa, nobody thought his skills would transfer to an alternative school in Oakland.
“Many friends from my country told me teaching in the U.S. would be difficult with my African background, they told me to shift to nursing or IT where the market is or that American teaching style is completely different and I should start with a regular school and not one that even experienced teachers find challenging,” Michael said.
“But I really wanted to pursue my passion. Teaching is a noble profession. I believe when I teach, I have a chance to influence people. So I said ‘No, I don’t want to struggle with what my heart tells me to do’ and that is all about teaching.”
Now, as one of four teachers at Community Day School, Mr. Michael teaches environmental science, math and some computer science classes for high schoolers. Community Day has only 27 students at the moment - 22 high schoolers and five middle schoolers who were once expelled from their District or charter school. Community Day prides itself on providing abundant support for students with the goal of re-admitting them to District schools once they are ready for academic and social success.
With a calm demeanor and distinct accent, Michael does not back down from a challenge.
“The first two weeks here were very hard because I had to work a lot to win the trust of students, to create relationships,” he said. “I also had to get used to their culture and it took time for them to understand my accent, everything. Sometimes they made fun of my accent. But slowly, slowly I built a relationship.”
By October, things started to go smoothly after her began “taking courses to adjust to the American classroom management system which was really helpful. All the staff, the principal, the case manager and secretary supported me because it was a completely new environment. At this time I can say that my students are kind of my friends and I really have a very good relationship with all students and their parents. We communicate regularly and work to overcome challenges.”
His knowledge of Africa and Japan, where he spent three years earning a Masters in Environmental Science from the University of Tsukuba, piques the curiosity of his students. Michael also speaks Japanese, a little Arabic and Tigrinya, “which is my mother language in Eritrea.” He said “students like to know about my experience,” in exchange for teaching him “some basic Spanish because we have so many Latino students and they feel very happy when I ask that.”
“I explain everything to them from the lowest poverty to the best good things about Africa so they will have a clear image. Some of them had the idea that Africa is all about war and poverty. There are some parts of Africa suffering from this, but there are also beautiful parts with abundant natural resources and diverse cultures, many languages and a lot of exchange of respect among people. I believe their way of thinking has changed, not only about Africa but everywhere. I always encourage them to think outside the box,” he said.
Despite the initial expectations of his friends, Community Day has turned out to be a great fit for Michael.
“People think these are the most difficult schools but it’s all about how you adjust and how determined you are,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of progress already. I will keep on helping these young brothers because the satisfaction that I get when my students achieve success is better than anything else. Teaching is the only profession that gives you the reward of making people. You can make citizens.”