Engineer turned teacher changes students’ lives (video)

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHARLOTTE – A few middle school students in Charlotte, North Carolina aren’t that thrilled the school year has come to an end. It’s because of a certain teacher who’s changed their lives inside and outside the classroom.

Thomas Kirkley’s success at teaching is found not only in year end test scores, but in the hearts of the students he teaches.

“He has accomplished a lot and that makes me motivated to accomplish stuff myself,” explains student Emily Partida.

Classmate Oscar Reid agrees.

“He shows me what a well-educated African American man can be in life.”

Teaching 8th graders geometry was not a destination for Kirkley until a sour economy eight years ago forced a career change from engineering to teaching. Now, there’s no looking back.

“The only regret I have is I should have done it sooner,” he says.

His challenge is made tougher by the circumstances of his students. Sitting literally in the shadows of Martin Luther King Junior Middle School are mean streets infected with drugs, gangs, violence and poverty.

They’re circumstances he finds familiar.

“I understand that you may have a single parent home and you may not have a father in the house. I had that, too,” he explains.

It’s how he grew up, and how he works it to an advantage that impresses even his peers.

“He has similar life experiences and doesn’t make excuses and doesn’t allow them to,” says principal Mark Robertson. “The individual relationship has to be established before the kids will trust you because they are used to their trusting relationships not working out.”

“When a kid feels they can relate to you and you can understand where they are coming from they will do anything for you,” Kirkley says.

Kirkley’s payoff? 90-percent of his middle schoolers passing state math tests in a district where normally only two-thirds do so.

More important, though, is the unconditional admiration from those he teaches.