Educating Juveniles in the Justice System: Lessons and Advice from Teacher of the Year Lamie Jimmeh
This month, we wanted to honor a significant achievement from Rutgers Alternate Route alumnus Lamie Jimmeh. Lamie was awarded Teacher of the Year in only his second full year of teaching at Sojourn High School, an alternative school serving pre-adjudicated middle and high school aged youth who have had encounters with the Juvenile Justice System.
Lamie has been working with children since he was 13, working in a preschool, an after-school program through his church, and a summer camp during his teen years. New Jersey born and raised, Lamie attended public school in East Orange. Growing up, Lamie considered becoming an architect or going into the medical field as his family had encouraged, but over time Lamie found that neither profession felt like his true path.
While attending Essex County College still pursuing a medical track, Lamie took a course titled “Men of Color in Urban America,” which changed his life. The course’s professor Dr. Ellis Williams – who is now Lamie’s mentor – made him look at the world entirely differently and Lamie realized that teaching was the path that had been calling for him his entire life.
After graduating, Lamie held teaching assistant positions in local schools – some schools with more challenging students than others. Lamie realized that the work he felt most passionate about was working with the students that can be hardest to reach.
“I’ve always been interested in working with kids that everyone kind of forgets about, that everyone kind of writes off,” according to Lamie. “I speak the language of these kids. I come from the same communities that they come from.”
Lamie enrolled in the Rutgers Alternate Route program while he was working as a substitute teacher at a Juvenile Detention Center and pursuing his certification. Lamie participated in Rutgers’ online courses and met with professors in person, all which helped strengthen his teaching strategies and skills. He became eligible as a teacher in 2017, was enrolled in continuing education from 2017-2019, and has now completed all state requirements for his standard teaching license.
Today, Lamie teaches English Language Arts for Grades 10-12 at Sojourn High School in Newark. Sojourn provides regular and special needs services for students with encounters with the Juvenile Justice System, many of whom exhibit chronic discipline problems and are in danger of not graduating.
Students at such schools face significant challenges, such as having erratic schedules that take them out of the building frequently for court appearances, social worker visits, orders from judges, and suspensions. “Most of the students are fighting very serious situations,” Lamie explains. “Imagine coming into a class and thinking you may be going to prison for 10 years and trying to read Shakespeare. They don’t know what’s going to happen in their lives.”
Also, new students are often coming into the classroom at many points throughout the school year. “The dynamics of the classroom change a lot. I have a lot of new students come to the class. I have to know them, learn them immediately.”
We asked Lamie for a few of the teaching and life lessons that he’s learned so far from his experience, which we’ve broken out below:
On earning a student’s trust: “I need to get a feel for them and they need to get a feel for me. I explain to them that I’m from the same city you’re from. My own peers would come to the same building.”
On discipline: “I don’t write students up. I understand how the school-to-prison pipeline works, how students getting suspended contributes to that. I don’t believe in suspension. The streets are supervising the students and they’ll be led astray, just from a suspension. I don’t get administration involved either, I have a conversation with the students. I know how to manage the classroom respectfully.”
On building a relationship with students: “I listen to them, that’s the most important thing. I give them a chance to speak. I don’t go around judging them. At the end of the day, these are still teens who don’t have access to many opportunities.”
On keeping students motivated: “I tell the kids, ‘your current situation is not your final destination. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Don’t let a day go by without trying to learn something. Although your body is confined here, you need to avoid confining your mind. You’ll fall into this box mentally.’”
On planning for the future: “I try to encourage them to have a plan. Pick up a trade. Learn cosmetology or barber skills, learn to be a mechanic or electrician. You can work for yourself. You’re going to get out of here and you’re going to need a skill. The learning doesn’t stop because you’re confined. Learn strategically, pick a goal and aim for that.”
Advice for teachers:
“If you set a goal and don’t hit it immediately, it shouldn’t be a downer. A loss isn’t a loss, it’s a lesson. Take what you learn from it and apply it to the next thing. Go after whatever it is you’re going after. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
“There’s no rulebook to teaching. It’s all about trial and error. If something you want to try works, great, if it doesn’t work there’s nothing wrong with scrapping it and going back to the drawing board. Figure out what works for you.”
If you’re considering following your dream of teaching as Lamie has, Rutgers Alternate Route can offer you the support and training you need to succeed. If Lamie’s story and message inspires you, be sure to also check out how these Divine Nine members stepped up to teach in NJ and follow Rutgers Alternate Route on Twitter for more information and stories from the field of education.