A tough yet caring NYC tech teacher molds teens for success
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Career Technical Education (CTE) is a tough job. There are long hours and demanding (as well as distracted) students, coupled with a constant wrestle for funding that can leave even the most dedicated instructor feeling frazzled and questioning his or her sanity.
It takes a certain kind of individual to forge a successful career teaching IT to teenagers. In addition to being knowledgeable, they need to be firm, tough, demanding, able to handle setbacks, and — above all else — dedicated to their students.
One man who exemplifies these traits is Alexander C. Bell (“Bell” or “Mr. Bell” to friends and colleagues), the CTE Instructor at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in the Queens borough of New York City. If you were to ask central casting to send over a “quintessential intense teacher” for your inspirational schoolhouse blockbuster, you’d probably get someone very much like Mr. Bell.
At first glance, he seems, for lack of a better word, intimidating. A large man with a stare that would probably give most people pause, Bell is also a snappy dresser. His tailored suit, carefully matched tie, spit-shined shoes and accompanying cuff-links would make him look at home on the cover of a men’s fashion magazine.
A CTE instructor for 34 years, Bell’s appearance is no façade. It’s a legitimate part of his persona, a carefully crafted statement about the importance of teachers. It reflects a lesson Bell learned years ago from his mentor, Dwight Threepersons.
In 1984, to address a shortage of certified CTE teachers, the City’s Department of Education and the Teacher’s Union tapped Threepersons to develop an internship program to train promising young individuals as CTE instructors. Bell was a member of the first cohort, training to be an instructor of business machine repair.
Just a year or two older than those he was instructing, Bell, like many first-time teachers, initially permitted the students to be informal toward him — joking with him and calling him by his first name. Threepersons pulled him aside and instructed him on the importance of maintaining an image of authority and respect.
“I told him you need to dress up a bit, put on a tie,” said Threepersons. “And, to your students, it’s no longer ‘Alex.’ It’s ‘Mr. Bell!’ ”
Energetic and optimistic
Ever eager to learn and improve, Bell changed his style. To this day, he tells Threepersons that that “was the best thing you ever did for me.”
Even his “ride,” a white Infinity M35X, makes a statement. His license plate, “Bell65” seems to shout out his arrival. An early riser, Bell typically pulls into the school lot each morning at 5:30 a.m. (classes start at 8:00), with the sunroof open and music blasting from a customized stereo system. His choice of “tunes” is eclectic.
“I love my reggae, blues giants like Etta James and B.B. King, and rock and roll from Tom Petty and ‘The Boss,’ Springsteen,” he said. “I like my music loud because I need that to keep me focused on what’s ahead in the day.”
An intense teacher, Bell is 100 percent committed to the success of his students. By arriving at school so early, he dedicates two hours to writing demos and preparing for the day without interruption.
Visitors entering Bell’s classroom immediately notice the walls plastered with mementos, copies of student certifications and achievements, various awards, and an abundance of inspirational quotes, each carefully chosen and displayed for maximum impact. The items are designed to inspire students to achieve.
As Bell put it, “Everything in my room has a story behind it. There is so much of happiness to talk about in here. They are all motivational tools. Students see them and they know something positive is taking place in here. They really make a difference.”
The quotes aren’t just wall hangings; Bell practices what he preaches, peppering his conversations with adages of faith in a higher power, hard work and stick-to-it-iveness that never fail to motivate. One of his favorites is by civil rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer: “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t up and try to do something, God’s not going to put it in your lap.”
Bell lives by those words. A religious man, he said, “I pray every day, and then I get up and get to work.”
Tech skills for life
Bell is a demanding teacher, pushing students to achieve and learn all they can. His constant refrain to new students is, “Follow my lead and you’ll leave here happy, skilled, and ready to succeed.” In his classes, students learn and train for the CompTIA IT Fundamentals and A+ certifications, because that prepares students to fill entry-level IT positions.
And, as with many demanding and caring teachers, Bell’s students appreciate and even love him because of what he did for them.
His primary focus for students is to “get them certified,” because certs will help them find a job. His secondary focus is for them to “be the best techs they can be.” Bell sees knowledge of the craft as being more important than a piece of paper.
“I teach them the difference between a mechanic and a technician,” he said. “A mechanic can open a machine up and fiddle with it, size it up, but a technician is someone who knows how and why something works.”
When it comes to IT skills, Bell favors performance through hands-on simulations. “Throughout the year they do several ‘hands-on’ performance exams that illustrate to me that they have mastered the task — or not,” he said.
One classic example (out of many) is a test that determined whether students have the ability to set up, connect, and configure a “network printer” using its IP address. To achieve full success, they must first explain the process and requirements needed, then perform the demo.
Bell refers to his students as “young leaders” because, “They will be leaders. I’m teaching technical and real-life skills that will enable them to provide for themselves and to help others.”
Setting the tone
When it comes to discipline, Bell’s students don’t have many issues. If they do, they don’t have them for long. Bell used to look forward to removing a disruptive student on the first day of school to “set the tone for the year that poor behavior will not be tolerated.” He hasn’t had to do that for some time, he said with a laugh, because older students tell the new ones right off “what Mr. Bell expects in his classroom.”
Bell’s teaching methods and high expectations have borne a lot of fruit. For the past 17 years, all of his graduating seniors, almost 400 of them, have become CompTIA A+ certified computer service technicians. “And come May, it’s going to be 18 consecutive years,” he stated.
A significant number of former students have completed New York City’s prestigious Success Via Apprenticeship (SVA) program (formerly the Substitute Vocational Assistant program that Bell himself completed). In fact, three of his former students who completed this program are currently working at Thomas Edison:
One is the sitting principal, one is the CTE department coordinator, and the other is a CTE teacher. Another former student is a CTE teacher at a different high school, and three others are currently enrolled in the SVA program.
Bell does more than just equip his young charges with IT skills. If they don’t go on to seek higher education, then he wants to see them employed as IT techs. And as part of preparing them for the workforce, he teaches soft skills — so that they can fit into a professional work environment — and uses his business contacts to help them land job interviews.
Bell regularly writes letters of recommendation for students, and even goes the extra mile by embedding a photo of him and the student working together on a project.
A special payoff for Bell is when former students drop by to say hello. These visits give him great joy when he hears how well his former charges are doing.
“I’m giddy when they come back to visit,” he said. “They show up looking great, feeling great, taking care of themselves, and helping Mom at home with the bills. In large part, because they consciously chose to trust and follow my lead which began their employment in IT.”
Do the right thing
In addition to IT and interpersonal skills, Bell’s most crucial lesson is the importance of being moral.
“I want my students to do more than prepare for a job. I want them to know the adventure that life brings if they follow a moral compass,” he said. “If you’re morally grounded and do the right thing, the money will follow. You may not be rich, but you’ll be happy. Nobody can take away from you the things you accumulate as you help change people’s lives.”
Speaking with Bell, one quickly realizes that it is morality that most defines him. He thoroughly believes his purpose is to help change people’s lives through teaching, and that to achieve that purpose, he must undeviatingly follow his moral compass.
Bell’s constant refrain to students is, “What is easy isn’t always right, and what is right isn’t always easy — but you can’t go wrong if you keep your moral base.”
A straight shooter, Bell is never afraid to “rock the boat” on behalf of his students. The kids are worth any backlash he catches for speaking out when higher-ups fail to make an important decision affecting their education, especially if he feels funding isn’t being divided fairly.
Fairness is another Bell touchstone, particularly when it comes to misbehaving students. “I see some students in other classes causing problems and breaking rules and still being rewarded with class trips and other special events. It’s a slap in the face to all Edison students who do everything right,” he said.
A hard road to success
Bell’s sense of morality and fair play came early in life. He grew up in the projects in a home with its share of dysfunction. Through desire and the help of others, he rejected that life, choosing instead a more difficult path of education, hard work, and sacrifice.
His road wasn’t easy. As a fifth-grader, he ran afoul of a teacher and was eventually kicked out of school. Another of Bell’s favorite quotes is from Adam Clayton Powell: “God works in mysterious ways and has wonders to perform.” Being removed from school was just the first of many of God’s wonders for Bell.
Eventually allowed to return, he was placed with a more understanding teacher, Ms. Kenchief. “Wish I could find and thank her. Through positive reinforcement, she changed my life forever,” said Bell.
Kenchief embodied fairness and made learning enjoyable. “She took us on the most fun school trips. We would learn when we least expected it,” he said. “We had to behave and complete all our work to go on class trips, and I never missed doing my homework.”
Lessons of responsibility and hard work continued in high-school with his office machine repair teacher, Joe Licata, whom Bell affectionately describes as a “crazy Italian guy.” An old school educator, Licata would yell, scream, and keep students’ noses to the grindstone.
Nevertheless, Bell said, “he always treated us fairly and made us do the work correctly. He wanted us to be greater than we were. I learned a lot from him.”
On his own as a teenager, Bell worked in a car wash to make ends meet. Starting on the lowest rung, he applied the lessons learned from his teachers and worked his way to a manager position. “I stayed positive, because like Gen. Colin Powell says, ‘Optimism is a force multiplier.’ ”
Bell isn’t shy about his humble beginnings: “I want my students to know that I was once below them, and my intention is to help them get to my level and even surpass me.”
Upon graduation, “Crazy Joe Licata” nominated Bell for a five-year internship in the City’s SVA program for aspiring teachers. After completing his field work with the Xerox Corporation, Bell became a licensed NYC teacher.
Even hard-driving IT teachers occasionally relax, and Bell does it in his own way. A fitness devotee, he enjoys progressive weight training — he can do sets with 120-pound dumbbells on the incline bench — power walking on the StairMaster, and takes pains to follow a healthy diet consisting of vegetables, fish, and drinking lots of water to prevent toxins from building up in his body.
“Eating clean means, I usually don’t get sick,” he said. “I’m so busy that I can’t afford to get sick.”
Over the years Bell has received his share of accolades for teaching, leadership and community service. Several of the more prominent ones include the NYC Most Innovative Technology Program Award, ACTE Region 1 teacher of the Year, The Big Apple Outstanding Teacher Award, The Learnkey Business & Education Partnership Award, and an Outstanding SVA Mentor Award.
Despite all the formal awards, Bell said he is most pleased with two “unofficial” recognitions. The first took place at an Edison High commencement, and was entirely engineered by his students. Called to the lectern and met by a group of students and the president of CES Industries, Long Island, Bell was given the Outstanding Teacher Appreciation Award.
The second unofficial recognition occurred last year at the Barclays Center sports arena, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, who gave Bell a “Teacher Excellence Award.” What pleased him more than being feted by the Nets was being recognized by a former student, Marcus Plaza, who graduated from his class 24 years ago. Plaza is an executive with the arena.
As Bell was being led to the floor, Plaza yelled out, “Mr. Bell! Mr. Bell! Do you remember me?” They made eye contact and instantly knew their past. Teacher and former student later connected for photos with several other students from years past also in attendance.
“It was a great night,” said Bell. “We all get tired trying to do the right things. Sometimes it’s so hard, but that night, I felt it was God giving me a sign that He knows I’m tired, but to keep on going.”
Bell has reason to be tired. He is a busy man involved in an important task, helping to change people’s lives for the better, and teaching students the skills they need to succeed in IT and more importantly in life.
As a reminder to himself to keep believing and striving, Bell’s business card includes a quote from talk show host and activist Joe Madison: “Never allow yourself to be … undervalued, underestimated, or marginalized.” Three adjectives no one has ever applied to Bell.
It’s understandable that Bell draws strength from the quotes lining his classroom. Perhaps the one that best sums up the man and his philosophy is from Albert Einstein: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
Based on the way he lives his life and the success of his students; Alexander C. Bell is indeed a valuable man.