Ready and Determined: Ayanna Thompas

In light of the current state of the Philadelphia School District, we decided to kick off our new column, Ready And Determined, with a teacher who has demonstrated that she is precisely what the title describes: a Rad Girl who is ready and determined to succeed in life despite any challenges life may present.

It's with great pleasure that we introduce a North Philadelphia native and resident, Ayanna Thompas, 35. Thompas is a science teacher at the Haramabee Institute of Science & Technology. When asked what makes her a Rad Girl, Thompas offered:

I am constantly educating myself first. The world is constantly changing and information evolving, [so] I have to stay current. I must be equipped to prepare my students to compete globally by exposing them to the latest developments.  In a country where entertainment is glorified, they must believe that education is valuable and that it is their greatest weapon.

Loves, here’s a peek into the story behind one of our cities most valuable assets: a teacher who is ready and determined.

She had no intention of being a teacher. In fact, it was something that she thought she would never do.

If you were to ask the widowed mother of three (ages 17, 12 and 4) what she thinks about teaching today and she’ll tell you that she believes it to be her destiny.

Ayanna Thompas started her journey to teaching back in grade school, coincidentally with a subject that she didn’t really care for: science.

“Science was not always interesting to me. I now know it was because I did not have the greatest science teachers,” said Thompas, “I had very few interactive experiences in science. Instead, it was heavily based on memorization of concepts.”

It wasn’t until she realized how many opportunities were in the sciences that she considered it as a viable option for her future livelihood.

“It seemed like the way to go,” she said, “My passion was further developed when I realized how practical science is and how we apply it in our everyday lives without knowing it.”

By the time Thompas was ready to start her undergrad studies, she was offered a full scholarship if she agreed to major in physics. Thompas agreed and unknowingly embarked on one of the toughest experiences of her life.

“It was extremely difficult. Not only is physics a challenging major, I became a mother in college and had to juggle school, work and motherhood so that I would not lose my scholarship and still be able to take care of my child,” she said.

As hard as the process may have been, she managed to complete her undergrad with a 3.4 GPA in 3 1/2 years by taking summer classes and 18 credits nearly every summer.

“Under those circumstances was my greatest accomplishment to date. I knew that if I could do that, I could do anything,” she said.

After graduating, Thompas “stumbled” upon a teaching job at Prep Charter HS. They were in desperate need of an 11th grade physics teacher and a friend recommended her. She got the job and has been teaching ever since. However, it wasn’t until her third year teaching that she accepted her fate. It was at that moment that she decided to go back to get her Masters in Education because she was serious about making it a career. Yet again, she was offered a free education for grad school because she committed to teaching math and science. Thompas graduated with both her bachelors and master’s degree debt-free thanks to the very subject that she originally had no interest in.

Once she finished her time at Prep Charter, Thompas went to the School District of Philadelphia via the Transition to Teaching program, a federal initiative to recruit and retain midcareer professionals. While there, she committed to teaching math and science at an at risk middle school and was assigned to Pickett Middle school. She spent the next four years of her life getting students to grasp how science was a part of their everyday lives.

“When people realize that everything is science, they become less frightened by the word,” she explained.

Her desire to spread her perspective and understanding amongst students about the field eventually lead her to teach a math class at a summer camp. In July 2010, the CEO of Harambee saw her teaching there and was impressed. He asked her to come on board; she was initially hesitant because she wanted to spend time with her infant child.

It was what would take place a few weeks later that changed the entire course of her life and her career.

“My husband was murdered and after that, I decided I had to be productive during my grieving process,” she said, “I thought, ‘what better way to do that than to give back to the children?’. I accepted his offer and have been at Harambee ever since.”

Harambee was everything that the new widow needed during her time of grieving. The school’s family style culture made the process more bearable for her.

“The school climate is very warm and the students are the most well behaved students that I have ever taught,” she said, “When you don’t have to put so much time and energy into classroom management, you can do what you came to do… teach!”

Given the state of the Philadelphia School District, Thompas is no doubt a part of the minority when it comes to the difficulty of having to manage a classroom. However, having invested more than a decade of her life teaching in various educational settings, she’s seasoned—and passionate—in her perspective on what’s currently happening.

“The state of education in Philadelphia is very disturbing. I feel that the children are no longer the center of agendas,” she said, “And it’s unfortunate because those attitudes are trickling down to administrators and teachers and we all suffer.”

According to Thompas, there are other reasons why science teachers in particular are suffering.

“All schools strive to make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress). The PSSA (high stakes test) math and reading is the only subjects recognized for AYP. As a result, I feel that students are not being prepared for the science PSSA and in some cases are receiving little to no science instruction at all,” she said, “This becomes a problem for middle school teachers such as myself. By the time students come to me, they have little to no science literacy and are at a huge disadvantage.  This, coupled with a lack of resources and funding, makes teaching science very difficult.”

Thompas credits her gift at making science connections as to why she’s been able to overcome these challenges; she pulls together household items and develops interactive activities for her 7th grade students, and pulls from her personal finances as needed to do so. Perhaps one of the even greater gifts that she has working in her favor is that she is just as dedicated to learning from her students as she is to teaching them.

“Teaching has taught me how to be creative and think outside the box. Because children come to me on so many different levels with a range of strengths and weaknesses, you have to get really creative in reaching them where they are cognitively,” she said.

Here is a teacher who is willing to meet her students  where they are (i.e. all of the life and academic challenges they deal with) in order to help them "meet success", as she says, in her classroom. When it comes to her students, Thompas is Ready And Determined to show them that:

"Whatever level you're on, as long as you reach the next are successful. [We] just [have to] give them the opportunities to be successful--that's really what motivates me."