There’s been no shortage of praiseworthy teachers throughout the pandemic, and among them is a pre-K teacher who went viral this week after sharing footage of his virtual classroom’s dance sessions — a unique “joy factor” strategy that he uses to keep students engaged.
“It's a tough time for me, but I get my joy and my energy from being with the kids, and I know that they thrive off the same thing, so it's about bringing that joy factor,” teacher, mentor and philanthropist Azel Prather, Jr. tells Yahoo Life about teaching at a D.C.-based school during this challenging time. “I play the song that they want to listen to. We do the dances that they want to do. It's their world, I'm just living in it.”
In an Instagram post that initially had 9,500 likes but shot past 36,600 after being shared by Because Of Them We Can, a content platform sharing stories of “Black excellence,” Prather writes, “I know virtual teaching is hard, but there’s always a creative way to GET and KEEP them babies engaged!! Start ya weekend off right with some joy! I told yall my virtual class is lit! After we workout I let my kids get it off with some dance moves. As long as we’re moving our bodies, we’re working out!”
Prather has been teaching early childhood education for the last five years and has spent the last two at the KIPP DC Arts & Technology Academy, a public charter school. “I want them to learn and they want to have fun, so let me meet them where they're at,” he says regarding his innovative classroom dance breaks. “If you can kind of tell that one kid is dancing in his chair while we're trying to learn, and another kid is dancing in his chair, too — we all just may need to dance, but then maybe we need to dance and learn a sight word at the same time instead. You just take a look at your kids, you see a need and you meet it.”
The Maryland native, 30, is also the CEO and founder of the Prather Foundation, which he says specializes in “meeting the needs of the community,” adding that the organization “specifically targets kids who are in communities that are overlooked — the ones that look like me, talk like me and walk like me.”
Prather further explains that his organization assists the local community with bills for mental health, physical health, groceries and other necessities, noting that “those things are not just for the holidays, but the overall human.”
In that same spirit of giving, his foundation is hosting a free virtual Christmas Eve celebration for children from ages 3 to 6, called “A Letter to Black Santa.”
The roles of teacher and philanthropist, Prather says, go hand in hand. “It’s an easy balance because I need them both. I need the kids — to see them and talk to them, interact with them — that does something for me, that fills me,” he explains. “In turn, I take that and go right into those same communities and am able to pour from what I get filled up with on the kids. So it actually works perfectly.”
Prather was first widely recognized for his efforts earlier this year when Ellen DeGeneres gifted him a new Hyundai Sonata and a $20,000 donation towards the Prather Foundation when he was a guest on her show. After learning that some of his students couldn’t afford haircuts, he reached out to local stylists, barbers and nail technicians to organize a day of pampering for them, prompting DeGeneres to surprise the devoted teacher.
Prather says that since the pandemic, he has been experiencing some drawbacks with virtual learning, noting that the inability to connect with students in person makes them harder to engage. But he believes in the idea that new problems lead to new solutions.
“I do virtual coaching with different organizations and I say, ‘if you can't reach them, you can't teach them,’ so you have to be able to step into their world. And we'll hide the medicine in the candy. We'll throw sight words and workouts in the dances, cause I know that's what they want to do,” he says. “Everything's always so structured, but sometimes we need to dance before we start or in the middle of something. We need the organized chaos, you know? The children are able to just simply be themselves.”
Prather notes that the dance breaks have already made a huge difference. “At first, the children didn't really want to log on, but I know for a fact that when it's time for our class, they'll be there, and they'll be engaged. They know when the camera hits them, it's their time to shine.”
He adds, “I've noticed that by just incorporating them and what they want to do it drove attendance and even drove parent attendance, as well. To have my students dancing and to see their parents in the background dancing, and they'll have their siblings with them too? It's just amazing to see.”
Looking back on his own childhood education, Prather recalls, “we didn't have as much freedom, but I did realize that the teachers I feel like cared about me looked like me, and they took the extra time, even if I did get in trouble.” That, he said, influenced his own teaching style and taught him the importance of cultural representation within the classroom.
“I don’t fake it for the kids,” he says. “I got earrings and Jordans and they love that, because they got the same thing. That's a first step to even having them trust you, or to even think to learn from you — they gotta trust you first.”
Overall, Prather says, “My biggest goal with anything I do is just to be an example… My kids can look at me and see a teacher, but also see somebody that's in the community. I also run a Black-owned market and I host comedy shows. I get to show my kids all these different faces and they see themselves in me, so then they'll know there are ways out the ’hood, besides basketball, rap or football. You can teach — or be a community activist or scientist or architect — and still be cool.”
Finally, he adds, “The kids are watching. We just got to make sure we show them the right thing.”
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