A Beloved Bronx Teacher Retires After a Conflict With His Principal
Tom Porton is used to drama: Since arriving at James Monroe High School as an English teacher 45 years ago, he has taught and staged plays. Outside, in the Bronx River neighborhood where the school is, there was plenty of drama in the 1980s, when AIDS and crack ravaged the area. His response then was to establish a group of peer educators who worked with Montefiore Medical Center to teach teenagers about H.I.V. prevention. His efforts earned him awards, including recognition from the City Council and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and led to his induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
Now he is at the center of drama: Last month he clashed with Brendan Lyons, the school’s principal, who disapproved of his distributing H.I.V./AIDS education fliers that listed nonsexual ways of “Making Love Without Doin’ It” (including advice to “read a book together”). This month, he said the principal eliminated his early-morning civic leadership class, which engaged students in activities such as feeding the homeless, saying it was not part of the Common Core curriculum. Mr. Porton was already skeptical of that curriculum, saying it shortchanged students by focusing on chapters of novels and nonfiction essays rather than entire works of literature.
So, next month Mr. Porton — a 67-year-old educator whom students praised as a lifesaver and life-changer — is walking away from teaching. He handed in his retirement papers on Friday.
“My career has always been based on the emotional and social well-being of the child,” he said, inside an office whose walls were decorated with awards, proclamations and photos of him alongside several school chancellors, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the rapper DMC. “Now, I don’t know where teaching is headed. I just know I can’t anymore. I find it torture. I’d rather separate myself from the classroom doing something that is distasteful and try to spend my days doing things that are important.”
Mr. Porton has been teaching and coordinating student activities long enough to see Monroe go from a large urban high school to one housing several smaller schools, including his, the Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design. Mr. Lyons — who repeatedly replied “no comment” to questions during a telephone conversation — arrived at the school at the start of the academic year. A previous tenure at a Manhattan high school was marked by his replacing paper hall passes with toilet plungers, which students used to wreak havoc on property and one another.
In December, on World AIDS Day, Mr. Porton handed out his flier, as he had for almost 25 years. Mr. Lyons sent him an email saying the flier was “inappropriate,” and asked that he collect those already distributed. Though Mr. Lyons said he would discuss the matter later with him, Mr. Porton said that conversation never took place.
H.I.V. and AIDS may have faded from the public mind, but they remain a danger in places like the South Bronx, especially among young blacks and Latinos. Mr. Porton said the school has failed to meet Department of Education mandates to educate students about the diseases, making his work all the more necessary.
Mr. Lyons, who would not say if the school met the mandates, never explained his objections to Mr. Porton. At the start of this semester, Mr. Porton said, the principal eliminated the 40-student leadership class because he said it was not part of the standard curriculum, even though the class met before the formal start of the school day. Because of that, combined with Mr. Porton’s disappointment over the standardized test frenzy that rules in many schools, he chose to leave.
“School is not pleasant, the way it was when I started,” he said. “They pay lip service to the social and emotional well-being of the child. My generation of teachers had a mind-set about how to teach a child. Today, young teachers see teaching as a way to kill time on the way to something else.”
Reaction among students and former students, many of whom learned of Mr. Porton’s retirement on Facebook, was immediate and full of outrage.
“How can anyone think what he does is inappropriate?” said Janelle Roundtree, a former peer educator who graduated from Monroe in 1995 and went on to Howard University. “He changed Monroe. He was in the forefront of so many things. The school is losing out on this one.”
David Gonzalez (no relation to this writer), amusician, poet and performer who graduated in 1973, was so grateful to Mr. Porton that he nominated him for the Kennedy Center’s Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, which he received in 2011.
“Tom has been the consistent heart of that building since I was at Monroe in the ’70s,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who still wonders how the teacher managed to get tickets to Broadway shows. “He was always looking for the heart and soul of the individual. I would never have had the confidence to do what I do without him. He changed my life forever.”
And now, Mr. Porton will change his own life.
“It was bittersweet,” he said after filing for retirement. “I’m sort of resigned to making the change. But there’s still a part of me that feels I’ll have to figure out where I’m going to go each day. Hopefully, somebody’s going to ask for my expertise somewhere. Let’s put it this way: I’m looking for job.”