There was a boy who lived in Nigeria in a small village. He was very bright and he had big dreams. He longed to attend the university and to study to become an engineer. He and like minded friends learned that they must take physics in high school to qualify for admission to the program. Sadly there was no physics class at the boy’s school. There were no instructors qualified to teach such a course. The boy and his friends were disappointed but they were not defeated. They heard that there was a man in the next village who had once been a physics teacher. They decided to seek him out and ask him for help.
The boys walked to the next town in hopes that they would find the solution to their problem. They easily located the former teacher living on a farm. They told the man about their dilemma and begged him to help them. The educator explained that he had too much work to do on the land. He did not have enough free time to teach them physics. He was very sorry but there was nothing that he might do.
The boys were disappointed but then they had an idea. They assured the man that they would help him with his farm work if he would agree to teach them. He considered the boys’ proposition and decided that if they were willing to come to his home each afternoon and perform the needed tasks then he would give them instructions after the work was done. The boys quickly agreed to the contract and faithfully walked the miles every single day after they had already attended hours of school in their own village. They labored in the fields and then sat raptly listening to the teacher’s lessons in physics. They proudly learned what they needed for college. The boy named Isaac was admitted to the university and just as he always had, he studied with determination and earned a degree in engineering.
After a time Isaac decided to move to America. It was not long before he had yet another idea. He wanted to help other young people like himself obtain the knowledge that they would need to attend college and better their lives. He became a teacher of mathematics and he was very good. He was paying his own success forward.
One day Isaac came to me seeking a mathematics teaching position at the school where I worked, Revere Middle School. My principal, Ken Estrella, and I interviewed Isaac and we were very impressed with his credentials and his educational vision. Since I had taught mathematics for many years I knew that Isaac was the real deal. I urged Mr. Estrella to hire him.
Isaac Owoyemi was his full name. Students who struggled with the pronunciation of his last name fondly called him Mr. O. He worked hard instructing students in the fundamentals of eighth grade mathematics and Algebra I. I so enjoyed observing him teach and I learned something new every time that I entered his classroom. He was quite amazing. He reminded me of what I thought Jaime Escalante was like, only because he was real he somehow seemed even better!
Eventually II moved from the middle school to KIPP Houston High School where I began to teach Algebra I and Algebra II. I remembered some of the methods that I had seen Mr. O employ with his students and I sometimes incorporated them into my own lesson plans. I so enjoyed being part of the KIPP system which seemed so in keeping with the Mr. O’s philosophies of education and life. When I became the Dean of Faculty and a mathematics position opened I knew exactly who I wanted for the students. I called Mr. O and asked him to come visit our school and to decide if he might like to work there.
I was thrilled when Mr. Owoyemi agreed to come to KIPP Houston High School. I eagerly told my students who would be in his class that they were going to meet the best mathematics teacher ever, even better than I was. They would laugh as though I was joking but I knew all too well that Mr. O was a master teacher who soared above the rest of us and that he only got better and better as time went on. He truly was a better teacher than I might ever hope to be.
Mr. Owoyemi became the KIPP Houston High School Algebra II teacher. He continually studied cutting edge teaching skills and used technology to individualize instruction for each of his students. He found ways to visually and concretely explore the various concepts so that students were not just memorizing formulas but actually understanding how and why things worked. Again I found myself mesmerized whenever I entered his classroom. I also marveled at how well he also understood the heart of teaching. Mr. O realized that while the science of education is critical it is in the relationships and personal touches that a teacher changes lives.
I nominated Mr. Owoyemi over and over again for different teaching honors. I knew deep down that there were few mathematics teachers anywhere in the world as dedicated and creative as he was. I wanted everyone to understand what a treasure he was for our students. I was frustrated that my essays were never quite catchy enough to spark the judges’ interest. I tried so many different ways to alert the powers that be that they had a most incredible man in their midst. Isaac Owoyemi is not just a purveyor of information. He knows exactly where each of his students lie on the continuum of learning. He understands their strengths and their weaknesses and he provides them with multiple opportunities to achieve mastery. He has infinite patience and ways of explaining even difficult ideas that makes them sound easy. He uses concrete and visual examples to help students to realize how mathematics is logical and part of the fabric of our lives. He manages to build confidence in even the most math phobic students.
One year I realized that thirteen students who had never once passed a mathematics TAKS test were rising up to Mr. O’s class. He and I carefully studied their former test scores from all the way back to the time that they were in the fifth grade. We were able to determine where there were enormous gaps in their learning. Mr. Owoyemi suggested that we design a special class for these thirteen kids in which he would tutor them in all of the foundational skills that they needed. In addition he would teach them in a regular Algebra II class where they might keep up with their peers.
Mr. O was quite excited about the prospect of this experiment. Both he and I understood that from a statistical point of view the odds of these students suddenly passing their Exit TAKS exam in their junior year of high school were quite slim. It is almost unheard of for those who have consistently failed year after year to suddenly find success. Nonetheless, Mr. Owoyemi approached the task without hesitation. He was certain that he would be able to provide them with everything that they needed to break the cycle of failure that had daunted them for so many years. Of course, just as I believed would happen all but one of this group passed the Exit TAKS exam on the first try and many of them even had outstanding scores.
Isaac Owoyemi is an incredible human in all facets of his life. He is also one of the most wonderful fathers that I have ever known. He has three children who have all attended KIPP schools since he first came to work for the charter system. He has instilled in them the same high standards of character that he possesses. The eldest son recently graduated from Rice University, another is enrolled at Tuft’s University, and the youngest daughter is at Wellesley College. Somehow he has managed to make them the center of his universe while also giving great swaths of his time to his students both before and after the regular school day. He is a kind and faith-filled soul who has never forgotten those long walks to a neighboring village where he began the quest for knowledge that has guided him, his children, and his students ever since.
Isaac Owoyemi is beloved among his peers. He is open and friendly and always willing to help a struggling teacher with his wisdom and optimism. He imparts the teaching practices that have worked so well for him. He volunteers whenever he is needed. He quietly walks through the halls of his school providing an example of teaching excellence day after day after day. He rarely complains unless he is advocating for his students. He is kind and cheerful on even the most difficult days.
This past week Isaac Owoyemi was finally honored for his unparalleled work. He won the Harriet Ball Excellence in Education Award for 2015 from the KIPP Charter Schools. In front of an audience of hundreds of his peers he humbly enjoyed the glory that has been due him for a very long time. In my heart I was applauding him, for I have always known that Isaac Owoyemi is a giant among educators.
Congratulations, Isaac Owoyemi! Those who know of your talent, professionalism, dedication, humility, and integrity are in awe of you!