“Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” ~Rita Pierson
Show me a great teacher and I’ll show you someone who has the capacity to change lives! That’s the power the truly great teachers possess. Unassuming yet unwavering in their desire to leave an imprint on each child that crosses the threshold of their classroom. One such example is Michael Bonner, a 2nd grade teacher at South Greenville Elementary, who’s viral video landed him an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Over the past four years, Bonner has been molding impressionable young minds to think beyond their circumstance while fostering an environment ripe for learning.
As an educator in a Title I school, the hurdles Bonner faces within his class go beyond talkative children with active imaginations who refuse to sit still. “Some of these students are in the foster care system. Some of them have single parent homes or do not have a father at all so they have this bitterness against men. Some of them are carrying some type of dysfunction that they’ve developed or been exposed to.” he explains. Nevertheless, each year Bonner is determined to “find a way to claw through that, find out what they love and use that inside of the classroom.”
To do so, he isn’t simply creating lesson plans to check off boxes on the yearly to-do list. He’s dedicated to making sure his kids retain the information presented. One year, his classroom loved to debate. As such, Bonner would rearrange the desk and allow the children to debate various topics. “Every classroom is different. This year they just loved music.” Unafraid to explore unconventional methods, Bonner professes, “I’m willing to go to whatever extent to make sure they learn the content that’s been given to them. I’m not a rapper by any means but I’m desperate enough to make sure they learn so they can provide a better life for themselves.” It’s that fortitude, craftiness and commitment to education that catapulted Bonner beyond his classroom in Greenville, NC onto a national stage.
The exposure from The Ellen DeGeneres Show that Bonner received for the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How Song” lead to multiple opportunities for the Perquimans County native. Not one to waste opportunity, Bonner capitalized on the moment and has since added public speaker and author to his long list of accomplishments. His first book, Get Up or Give Up: How I Almost Gave Up on Teaching, will be released in October. He has also been named Teacher of the Year and most recently was honored as HBCU Alumnus of the Year.
However, if you were to ask him what he’s most proud of, his response might surprise you! Bonner’s greatest accomplishment to date is the satisfaction of knowing he’s making his family proud. Acknowledging, “We are the deposits of multiple people”, Bonner credits his parents, siblings and the rest of his “village” for shaping him into the man he’s become. “My siblings are phenomenal. I’ve always sorta been the one in the spotlight in a way and they’ve never shown a jealous bone in their body. They’ve always been respectful. They’ve always been supportive. They’ve always been loving.” Family, faith and a solid foundation has kept the 27 year old humble and focused.
As a new school year quickly approaches, Bonner’s schedule is jam packed with speaking engagements at Harvard and Ted Talk. Yet, listening to him speak, you can hear the excitement building for the new group of kids that will be entering “Bonnerville” at the end of the month. Eager to explore the world of learning with his new class, Bonner is excited to “introduce stocks and bonds in the simplest way” when his 2nd graders are learning about money. After all, knowledge is power and he’s determined to give his students all the tools necessary to lead productive lives. “Sometimes it’s withholding of valuable information that can help an individual break the cycle of poverty or the cycle of ignorance and that’s what really fuels me. ”
Sure, Bonner could move on from teaching today if he chooses but when asked, “What keeps you going back?” his response was simple yet profound…“I love them!” Without hesitation, Bonner professed a love for his students that each of them has undoubtedly seen in his genuine smile, felt in his warm hugs and witnessed in his zest for teaching. Furthermore, he’s committed to “Not leaving South Greenville until I know there’s a systematic structure put in place with the finances that will continually benefit them.”
Bonner ‘s mission to”break the barriers inside of education” start with him but extend to the entire community. As an advocate for his fellow teachers, Bonner states, “Teachers work really hard. I’m not an anomaly. I’ve just been blessed to be put in a position where multiple individuals have poured into me and blessed me with certain information that allowed me to put myself into a position to be successful.”
Bonner’s name will continue to reach far beyond the South Greenville Elementary campus. But his presence will forever be felt within the community as an educator who cared enough to make a difference. Legacies are built on lives of service! Daily, Bonner makes us all proud that he chooses to serve as a champion for our youth through teaching.