Benton Wise ’13 doesn’t look much like a high-school teacher.
Standing in front of a small group of students in a light-yet-not-Carolina-blue Duke sweatshirt, eating pizza off a paper plate, with a gentle cowlick sprouting at the crown of his head, the fresh-faced, spirited twenty-five-year-old could be mistaken for a high-school student.
But even as he laughs with and needles students, it’s clear he has a deep and authoritative connection with them, based on a mutual respect. The normally rambunctious students, some perched on top of desks, listen intently to him and to each other.
Wise is leading an afterschool meeting of Spartans of Vision, a student-led screen-printing business at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability in East Durham that he helped found earlier this year. There’s a lot of work to be done: Students are responsible for everything in the business from product design to marketing to accounting, and they look to Wise to lead the way.
Wise listens closely to the students and offers gentle advice and firm problem-solving guidance. He doesn’t overreact when a student offers a zany idea or loses his or her train of thought. And that happens a lot with this project.
This patient rapport with students doesn’t come easily, especially for new teachers like Wise, many of whom struggle to simply survive the stresses of early-career teaching. Few young teachers have access to the resources that learning to innovate, listen, and mentor requires. Fortunately for Wise, and his students, he found the supportive community he needed to thrive in his first years as a teacher as a resident fellow at Duke TeachHouse.
Founded in 2015, Duke TeachHouse is a three-year program that includes a two year residency in the program’s Holloway Street home. It’s open to alumni of Duke’s teacher-prep programs and offers fellows mentorship, support, and resources the fellows wouldn't normally have access to as beginning teachers. In return, they commit to teach in the Durham public-school system for the duration of their fellowship. TeachHouse hosts seven resident fellows and two nonresident fellows each year, and the plan is to introduce three new fellows in every cohort. For the fellows who enter TeachHouse, it can be a career-defining moment.
“TeachHouse aims to cultivate early-career teachers who foster respectful, engaged, and productive communities of learning for their students while building confidence, competence, and resiliency as emerging leaders and innovators in K-12 schools, even in the face of challenges,” says TeachHouse director and cofounder Jan Riggsbee.
The program was created to tackle the painful realities of twenty-first-century teaching. Beginning schoolteachers face a long list of taxing challenges, especially in North Carolina: isolation, low pay, expanding class sizes, lack of institutional support and resources, as well as a shifting of responsibility of social issues like poverty, bullying, and unemployment onto schools. These challenges are taking a toll on teachers and schools alike. Nearly 50 percent of teachers with fewer than five years of experience leave teaching for good, creating a cycle of attrition that leaves teachers adrift and deprives school systems of experienced instructors and leaders.
TeachHouse isn’t just about offering support to the fellows; the fellows give back. In the third year of their fellowship, the fellows leave TeachHouse and develop an innovation project to help solve problems in their schools.
That emphasis on innovation is now moving into classrooms. Spartans of Vision is Wise’s capstone innovation effort. He started it to address the students’ need for positive male role models by providing “mentors and a work-oriented creative group to foster positive self-identity,” he says.
Still, like many new business ventures, the five-month-old project is off to a fitful start. One meeting might have twenty students, but only three show up at the next. One student wants to produce high-fashion prints on expensive fabrics, and another wants to do simple T-shirts with a class logo for graduation. Decisions made at one meeting might not get written down; they’re forgotten or overruled by the next. A student who wanted to be a designer two weeks ago now wants to work on the business side.
The kids have lots of grandiose ideas; since the project has been under way, they’ve changed the name of the project twice, but still haven’t applied ink to anything yet. While the kids are enthusiastic, their ambitions wildly outpace their abilities, a lesson many new entrepreneurs learn the hard way, and Wise steers them back to more realistic goals.
To help launch the project, Wise reached out to artist and professional printmaker Bill Fick, director of Supergraphics, a Durham fine-art print production studio, to provide the artistic and practical skills the students would need. It was a fortuitous call. Fick ’86, a visiting assistant professor of art, art history, and visual studies at Duke, has long been engaged in community outreach and wanted to “get printmaking out in the community, especially communities that don’t have access to this sort of thing,” he says.
Fick also has to regularly, and gently, remind students that, while they want to do high fashion, “they are a lot more rudimentary than that.” But the practical realities of starting a business don’t dampen their enthusiasm. They keep spitballing ideas, realistic or not, and they keep engaging with the process.
And that’s the point. Underneath the light mood and easy banter, Spartans of Vision has a serious mission that has nothing to do with business success: offering students the opportunity to experience and learn from positive male role models, while simultaneously gaining vital life skills they’ll need beyond high school.
For Wise, the project, while ostensibly about T-shirts and posters, is really a chance for him to confront head-on the inequalities and injustices he sees in the public education system. “We’re failing to meet students from all backgrounds and give them an equal chance at realizing their full potential,” Wise says. He hopes Spartans of Vision can change that, even just a little, for his students.
He has long viewed education as a social-justice issue. Wise was born in Marion, South Carolina, a small, dying, postindustrial town in the northeastern part of the state with a poor school system. His father farmed for a living, and his mother is an accountant. His parents deeply valued community and education, and they put their beliefs into action for Wise by paying extra to send him to a distant, but much better, school district.
The imbalances between the two school districts struck him even as a young child. It wasn't until high school that he started to take action. He became an activist in the movement to amend South Carolina’s constitution by changing language that said students were entitled to a “minimally adequate” education to language that said students were entitled to a high-quality education.
That led him to Duke. “That activism helped me on my college applications. I spoke about what I knew best, which was advocating for schools,” Wise says.
He earned a Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship and studied public policy. He returned to South Carolina to teach in public schools there. A lack of institutional leadership and resources made his first year incredibly difficult, and he nearly gave up. Then he heard about Duke TeachHouse and came back to Durham.
The students at Southern High School in Durham face a daunting array of challenges; it was tough for Wise to pick just one. The North Carolina Department of Education has designated Southern a “low-performing school.” More than 70 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, many students come from single-parent homes, and the graduation rate is below state averages, according to Southern principal Jerome Leathers.
“We have kids coming in with low skills. That’s why it’s so important for Mr. Wise and other teachers to offer mentorship for young men,” says Leathers.
It took Wise a while to get the concept right. His original plan was to buy pizza to entice students in and invite role models and speakers to address them. But they “didn’t respond to just being told what to do and how to do it.” To really reach students, he needed them to take ownership of whatever project he created.
“What I learned was not to meet the kids where they’re at, but to build something that they want to be a part of,” says Wise. “That’s where we’ve started to see a lot of success, when the kids don’t just talk about school but get to discuss something that’s bigger than themselves.”
That shift in thinking already is producing results for students. They are developing a craft with the help of older, wiser mentors like Fick, learning to work together in a collaborative environment, and seeing tangible rewards for their work, even in these early stages of the business. And even though they haven’t produced any products yet, they are making progress. The students are close to choosing a graphic design for their first T-shirt and hope to settle on a final image soon.
For Wise, that’s progress enough for now. “You learn on the fly, and the energy has been steady. It may not be from every student every week. But every week there is a student who asks, what are we doing this week?”
The hope is that Spartans of Vision becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop of positive reinforcement fueled by student energy. Fick is committed to the idea long term, Leathers has given the project his vigorous support, and the students are on board.
Spartans of Vision is the kind of autonomous, repeatable success within schools that TeachHouse aims to replicate with every innovation project. Yet the program also encourages personal success for the fellows. Two first-year fellows at TeachHouse, Ashley Pollard and Shannon Potter, won Beginning Teacher of the Year honors at their respective schools this year. Both were nominated as one of three finalists district-wide in Durham Public Schools for the same title, Pollard as an elementary-school teacher and Potter as a high-school teacher. Ultimately, Potter won.
In the next school year, Wise will continue with the Spartans project but he will not continue as a public educator. The financial realities of being a teacher in North Carolina made it increasingly difficult for him. He is leaving Southern in July to become an instructional designer for online learning.
“This is the story of teachers, especially in North Carolina,” says Riggsbee. “They’re passionate, committed, but faced with tough decisions.”
Riggsbee says she’s encouraged that Wise’s passion for the work he’s done hasn’t waned. He will work with Southern as a volunteer and will stay engaged with TeachHouse as an alumnus in a mentoring role.
In the end, Wise has planted seeds of change at Southern. “I’ve been really impressed with what Benton is trying to do,” says Fick. “It’s challenging, but it will continue to grow.”