America's Water Education: Interview of Jermel Collins-Day by Nancy Degnan

Editor's note:

For the third entry of our blog series, co-PI Nancy Degnan interviews Jermel Collins-Day, instructor of physical health at the Eagle Academies for the Young Men of Harlem and PhD candidate at Teachers College. Mr Collins-Day shares his perspective on culturally relevant and context-aware environmental education, highlighting shortcomings in teachers when out of touch with the difficulties students face.

This work has been produced within the context of our NSF grant on the innovative use of water data platforms at the middle and high school level, bringing together Columbia Water Center's researchers Nancy Degnan and Laureline Josset and a team of educators at the Eagle Academies for the Young Men of Harlem. Their thoughts are collected in a series of blog entries on our project dedicated website.

Anne Nancy Degnan
Jermel Collins-Day
May 10, 2023
Would you tell us a bit about yourself and why you chose the profession of teaching, and in particular, Physical Education and Health?

 My name is Jermel Collins and for as long as I can even remember I have wanted to be a teacher. I have been blessed all my life with caring, dedicated, passionate and professional teachers and without these caring professionals I would not be where I am today. I feel like I am in this world for a reason and that reason is to give back to the community as a Physical Education and Health Teacher. My personal experiences have helped to create my foundational beliefs in terms of how I approach and view my own passion for teaching and for physical fitness.  However, it is my academic career that has helped me to enrich and expand my knowledge about the science behind how we as educators can approach teaching physical education. Some of the programs I have examined in my studies are the Better Movers and Thinkers approach, the constructivist approach, and the environmental approach.

Physical Education teachers possess the ability to help students enrich their health, their bodies, and their souls.  I have always been a person who is involved in sports, as a child I relished any opportunity to run, jump, climb, bounce, or swim. I believe that this helped me to have a successful and well-rounded childhood that led me to become a balanced and happy adult.  Not only that, I have found that physical education allowed me to better engage with my community through play, and through athletic competition. This is something that has been well documented in the study of physical education and community.  By becoming more engaged with other people through sport, a child can establish friendships and camaraderie that may help them to excel in all aspects of life, including at home and in their community (Cutforth, & Belansky, 2015).   In my experience, physical education creates a foundation for an active life that is most efficiently established in childhood. It can serve as a way to open a child’s mind and eyes to a way of living that encompasses awareness of the importance of exercise and healthy eating.  Not all children come from families where activity and exercise are a part of daily life, whatever the reason may be. This is the primary motivation for choosing to pursue a career in teaching physical education, so that I might be able to pass this enthusiasm onto children who may not be aware of the joys of physical activity (Cutforth, & Belansky, 2015).

What motivates you to work with boys and young men at the Eagle Academy? 

I am extremely motivated to work with African American boys and young men at Eagle Academy mainly because I was one of them.  I can relate to them on a personal level and I have been where they are now and I have had to overcome many of the hardships and obstacles that many of them are currently facing.  I feel that the Eagle Academy addresses an important need in the Black American Community.   Despite the recent attention to the needs of our nation’s Black youth, the educational perspectives of society are still noticeably absent from physical education in a way that fully compresses the full spectrum of their experiences.

Being an African American Male who grew up in the United States I’m very much aware of the institutional racism that is ingrained in this country. Given the history of the United States and the unique ongoing struggle for civil rights that Black groups (particularly African Americans) must face, a healthy discussion of the Black experience is essential to the understanding of how other groups have navigated racism and structural disadvantages in the United States.  I feel that as a physical educator I am not only responsible for developing a student’s body, but also to develop my student’s mind, spirit and determination.  As a Physical Educator for the Eagle Academy, I will see to it that each and every one of my student’s believe that they can do anything that they set their mind too.

I’m a unique individual with my own unique life experiences and perspectives.  While the AWE project places emphasis that teachers be comfortable with their ability to effectively implement environmental education, I feel that it’s important to consider that underprivileged urban youth come from a different environmental scope than children of more privileged families.

Why did you decide to become part of the NSF AWE Project?

The main reason why I decided to become part of the NSF AWE Project is because it empowers the under privileged community.  I grew up in a poor Black Community and I know what it’s like to struggle for everything that you have. I know what it is to live in poverty. It is a cliché, but I have “been there” in terms of being ambivalent about school, optimistic and pessimistic about America and its promise of equal opportunities and advancement if one just works for it. High academic achievement results from self-efficacy. Self-efficacy provides the motivation to succeed.

I am a natural motivator and I am determined to motive my students as a Physical Educator.  Through the NSF AWE Project, I want to reach and teach as many under privileged students as possible because I genuinely want to help. If students do not believe they can master the work they will not try to do so. If they have self-efficacy, they believe in themselves and in their ability to master what they want to accomplish. My first job as a physical education teacher was to give them the self-efficacy to create the motivation to learn. I can convince them that excellence in school does lead to economic futures unavailable to those who leave school. But my goal and my job is to show them how special they are and the promise they hold to master their destiny. Once that is accomplished, I need only teach them skill sets and they can do they rest — with guidance and support from NSF AWE Project teachers.

Your expertise in social, emotional learning and teaching is very important in our AWE project.  What do you think are the most important life skills and strengths?  How can we support students in enhancing existing strengths and building new ones?

The AWE project focuses on clean water but emphasizes social and emotional learning and teaching and this is what I do in my daily life.  I strongly believe that every single person on this earth is both a teacher and a student at the same time because we can all learn from one another.  As a physical education teacher, I believe in a constructivism means of teaching and learning.  This approach emphasizes a collaborative means of helping students to better comprehend the material, to improve their problem-solving capabilities, and to learn how to effectively cooperate with others. Constructivism in the classroom means that instructors allow for learners to freely interact with one another at appropriate times as a means to allow for learners to take leadership roles in their education (Chen, 2020). Of course, the instructor oversees the learners, but the learners are given the opportunity to as a way to increase confidence and comfort with the class material.

As a Physical Education Teacher I do not only want to shape my student’s bodies but also their minds and spirts.  In this teacher’s opinion some of the most important life skills and strengths that a person can have include, critical thinking, confidence, and problem solving. As a teacher I will encourage students to enhance their existing strengths and to build news ones by working together and communicating.  Some students are stronger in certain areas and weaker in others which is way I strongly encourage group projects and communication.  Working as groups and learning to communication with one another can help students draw on each other’s strengths while improving their weaknesses (Chen, 2020).

Would you share a bit of what you're studying as a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia?

As a doctoral candidate at Teachers College of Columbia University I’m studying Physical Education and Health. My primary focus of study is teaching Physical Education Teachers Attitudes Towards Effectiveness in Teaching in Urban High Schools.  I have a great deal of dedication and passion towards teaching urban youth because I come from a poor African American family and without kind, dedicated, professional and caring teachers I would not be where I am today. I choose to be a physical education teacher because I have always enjoyed sports such as basketball, football and baseball and I feel that it can build confidence in a person.  While sports are positive for teaching physical development in our nation’s youth population I also aim to focus on mental and spiritual training so that our Urban Youths have the tools they need to succeed.

I have learned through my study to date that Urban high schools are likely to have a lot of diversity with students coming from many different cultural backgrounds. This is why physical education teachers must have a positive attitude towards diversity so that they can effectively teach in such settings. Teachers must also be able to adapt their teaching the cultural diversity of the students (Stanley, 2019). This is because students from different cultures would have different expectations from the teachers. The teachers must be aware of these expectations and try to fulfill them for each student as best as possible. Teachers must also raise awareness for cultural differences amongst students and all students should learn about cultural differences (Stanley, 2019). Physical education teachers teaching in urban high schools are likely to encounter students from a variety of different cultural backgrounds. The teachers should have an attitude as per the items depicted herein so that they can indulge in better and more effective teaching.

Do you see your research as a doctoral candidate dovetailing with the AWE Project?  If yes, in what way?  If not, in what way?

I hope that this answer is acceptable and it should be because it’s the truth.  Short answer is yes and no, but in most cases yes, my research as a doctoral candidate will fit with the AWE project.  As a physical education professional educator, I feel that my teaching philosophy dovetails with the AWE project because I feel confident that my understanding and knowledge of the natural world has distinct connections with our environment.  I’m very comfortable with my ability to effectively implement environmental education with teaching the urban youth population physical education.

While my research as a doctoral candidate and my own personal teaching philosophy does mainly dovetail with the AWE Project, I’m very much aware and feel that all candidate should be aware that I’m a unique individual with my own unique life experiences and perspectives.  While the AWE project places emphasis that teachers be comfortable with their ability to effectively implement environmental education, I feel that it’s important to consider that underprivileged urban youth come from a different environmental scope than children of more privileged families.  It is this teacher’s perspective that education is considered the cornerstone to freedom and democracy. Many people feel that education assists with economic development towards improvement. During a cultural and historical standpoint, one might say that education was denied for one race and strive for another. As time progress, education becomes integrated regardless of cultural background and/or race. Education continues to surface as the hub towards opportunities and continues with rigorous standards, regulations, and procedures (Dalziell, 2015).

I write this with the utmost respect but I feel that many instructors today are out of touch with the difficulties students face, specifically those difficult issues such as learning a new language, dealing with a specific learning disability, or living in poverty.

What else do you think is important to share about your work at the Eagle Academy, with the AWE project team, and in your current research?

Whether it be for the Eagle Academy, the AWE project team or any other organization or project that I work with the main thing to know is that I put the needs of my students before my own. While most educators choose or desire to work in more advantaged schools and school districts, I actually choose to work with high need schools and high need students because as the name implies this is where caring and professional educators are the most needed.  High need schools are schools that are located in an area in which the percentage of students from families with incomes below the poverty line is 30 percent or more (Cornell Law School, 2022).  I want to work in these high need areas because this is where I come from and this is what I relate to and most importantly this is where I can make the greatest and most positive impact on student’s lives.

The country is changing and students are in need of dedicated, caring and professional teachers who have the experience necessary to meet their individual needs. I write this with the utmost respect but I feel that many instructors today are out of touch with the difficulties students face, specifically those difficult issues such as learning a new language, dealing with a specific learning disability, or living in poverty. In my own research interests, I want to find ways to help students that are underserved, and I want to tackle the difficult situations of dealing with our nation’s urban youth population.  I am very interested in serving diverse populations because I know there is a need in today’s society. Growing up in poverty I was inspired the most by the teachers who understood my life and my background. I feel like if someone like me were to see students--actually see them--students would be more successful in their future academic endeavors. Students of education come into the college with preconceived notions about what the students of diverse populations are like. Indeed, “many…[education] students believed that urban parents did not care or were ambivalent toward their child's education” (Ramirez, p. 47). This is alarming because it suggests a tone that nobody cares, so we do not have to hold the students to a high standard. There is a need for student of education to be aware that just because a family is poor, or even if that family has been mixed in with crime, it does not in any way mean that the family wants the same for its own children. The default should be that this family loves and cares for their child, no matter what.

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