Q&A with Tony Howard, interim principal, Edison Middle School
CHAMPAIGN — From teaching science to coaching basketball, Tony Howard of Champaign has devoted much of his life to helping young people.
On July 1, Howard begins a new chapter in his career when he becomes the interim principal at Edison Middle School, leading a team of 60 staff members and serving about 660 students.
Last week News-Gazette staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with Howard to talk about his experiences as a high school shortstop, his enthusiasm for helping youths and his impressive collection of Michael Jordan shoes.
Q: Did you always want to be a teacher or a principal?
A: I started out being interested in chemistry, and, when I first went to college, my intention was to pursue a career in engineering. One day one of my professors asked me if I would be interested in pursuing education due to my passion for helping others. He told me I had a true passion for helping others, so I should consider a career in education. I took him up on his offer and declared my major in education, with an emphasis on chemistry and science. That way I could continue my love for chemistry while working toward a rewarding career.
Q: Were you involved in any activities in high school?
A: I played baseball at East St. Louis High School. I played shortstop because one of my heroes was Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals. And I was also a big fan of Bernard Gilkey and Vince Coleman. I was also in the National Honor Society.
Q: After graduating, where did you start teaching?
A: My first job was actually right here at Edison Middle School in 2006. I was a sixth grade teacher, and my classroom was right down the hallway from the principal's office where I will be working. In addition to teaching science, I was also an AVID (Advancement in Individual Determination) teacher. AVID is a program for the kid in the middle, the B/C student, often the first person in the family to ever go to college. We try to teach them prep skills and Cornell University note-taking style. We teach the students to synthesize learning materials and ask questions at a high order.
Q: Since you taught here at Edison, do you think it will make you more effective as principal?
A: Definitely. I taught here for five years and received my tenure here. I was also the eighth grade head basketball coach. One year we actually had a season where we only lost one game all year. I think the Comets were 23-1. It was a pretty impressive year. I am very dedicated to this building. I have spent my entire career out of college here, and I want to be able to make a difference. I want to establish a collective vision for school improvement. I want to lead the community in understanding how diversity is important for the school and the community.
Q: Do you think, as a teacher, you can get closer to the students when you also serve as a coach?
A: Definitely. You can go and make an emphasis on the Comets being an athlete second and being a student first. I am all about having scholar athletes. I make sure everybody takes education seriously before anything else. I continually stress how important it is for them to go to college to break the cycle.
Q: What was the most challenging and rewarding thing for you as a teacher?
A: My biggest challenge was thinking I could save every single student. The most rewarding part was not giving up on any student and having them come back to share how I made a difference in their lives. The wall of my office contains a selection of letters I received from different students after they went to high school thanking me for what I did for them. My former students stop by the school all the time, and I have an open gym for them. We play basketball and hang out on a Saturday and talk about life. I actually mentor one of my former students. His name is Terrion Howard — no relation — and he plays varsity basketball for Centennial. I'm really in tune with my kids. Since I don't have kids of my own, the students here at Edison are my kids.
Q: Is mentoring important among your staff here at Edison?
A: We have a huge percentage of our teachers who also serve as mentors.
Q: When you became an assistant principal, did you miss spending all day with the students in the classroom that you experienced as a teacher?
A: I truly missed being in the classroom. But if anybody knows me, they know I always visit the classrooms. I rarely use this principal's office because I like to be out in the trenches, knowing what is going on. This is a very big building for a middle school. It has three floors and was originally Champaign High School. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of this building this coming year. The teachers are working on a celebration.
Q: I see you have a poster of President Barack Obama on the wall.
A: He is one of the guys who provides hope and faith, which is a big motto of mine. Actually seeing the first black president being part of my generation is very critical, and I think it is critical to let the younger kids know they can do anything. There is hope. No matter what you do, if you put your mind to it, you will be successful at it.
Q: What is your favorite meal?
A: I like all fresh organic ingredients. My favorite meal would probably be chicken wings off the barbecue. I'm a big barbecue fan.
Q: As a former baseball player and basketball coach, what are your favorite teams?
A: The St. Louis Cardinals. Champaign is a pretty good divide between the Cardinal and Cub fans, so we always have some fun activity going on between the Cubs/Cardinals series. As far as football goes, I watch the Bears, but I root for the Indianapolis Colts. One of my cousins, Jerris Pendleton, plays defensive end for the Colts. I just hung out with him a few weeks back. I would love to have him come visit with our students some day.
Q: What is your ideal vacation destination?
A: Hawaii. I am a big fan of volcanoes.
Q: Whose poster was on your bedroom wall when you were in middle school?
A: Michael Jordan, of course. I am an avid sneaker collector, and I have more than 500 pairs of Michael Jordan shoes. I have been collecting those shoes since I was probably 10, 11 years old. When a new model comes out, I get every pair. The students really get a kick out of it because, every blue moon, I will wear a pair of Michael Jordan shoes to school. And we always talk about different sneakers that are up and coming. It's another way to build a relationship with this group of kids.
Q: What is your advice for young people interested in a career in education?
A: Make sure you have good study skills. Make sure you have time management skills. Believe that anything is possible. Truly, anything is possible when you put hard work and dedication to it. And listen to your teachers. It is very important.
The Howard file
Name: Tony Howard
Occupation: Interim principal at Edison Middle School
Education: Graduated from East St. Louis High School, received a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Millikin University and a master's degree in educational administration from Eastern Illinois University.
Other: He serves on the Champaign Public Library board.