Pascal Zabayo and Augustine Twite offer lived experience to Concord High

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 07-31-2023 7:06 PM

For Pascal Zabayo, the message that guides him every day is very straightforward.

“You work for the community. You are there for the community,” he said. “Anytime you can help someone, don’t say no.”

It’s something his grandmother reminded him constantly as he grew up in Uganda, and it’s stuck with him as he prepares for his senior year of college at Plymouth State.

This summer, he’s trying to impart some of that wisdom on the next cohort of students entering Concord High School, the same place that gave him the opportunities to get to where he is now. Along with fellow Concord High graduate Augustine Twite and about 20 other staff members, Zabayo has spent the last three weeks helping the incoming ninth graders acclimate to their new stomping grounds.

While some teachers return for the summer orientation program, the school district also turns to the community for additional staffing. From the perspective of assistant principal Kaileen Chilauskas, it’s a great opportunity to expose younger people to the teaching profession, where hiring and recruiting for open positions has been a challenge. Since 2006-07, New Hampshire has seen a decline in college students completing teacher preparation programs, from 1,153 down to 539 for 2020-21, per the United States Department of Education. This tracks generally with trends across New England and the country.

Bringing Zabayo and Twite aboard for the summer is also a great way of welcoming new and different perspectives into the classroom. Both came to Concord as refugees, Zabayo from Uganda and Twite from Zimbabwe.

“It’s no secret: The staff at Concord High School is not very diverse in color,” Chilauskas said.

“Having more students who are coming in as ninth graders looking at someone who comes from a similar background, it makes all the difference in the world. We sometimes try to pretend that it doesn’t, but it makes all the difference.”

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Their presence provides benefits in three ways: It gives the students younger and, perhaps, more relatable role models to look up to, it exposes the older staff to different points of view and, in the long term, it could help encourage the two young mentors to pursue teaching after college.

“You ask a lot of 23-year-olds whether they’ll get into education, and most of them will tell you, ‘No way,’ ” Chilauskas said. “But I feel like if we get more of them to come back to the community and at least have an experience and have a vision of, ‘OK, I know a little bit about what it would look like, I know a little bit about how it would be,’ it at least leaves it as a possibility.”

‘Return the favor’

There’s an irony in how much Zabayo has wanted to immerse himself in education. When he was a student in Uganda, a teacher beat him so badly that blood pooled on his chair. He left school that day and never returned.

But when he arrived in New Hampshire in 2016 knowing little to no English, it was all the extra help from his teachers, especially the ones that continually challenged him to improve, that demonstrated the power of education.

“When (Chilauskas) reached out to us about this, thinking of how much Concord gave to me, it felt like it’s just right for me to return the favor,” Zabayo said.

Not all the lessons came directly from the classroom. Twite moved to Concord in 2015 and had planned on playing soccer. One of the first people he met was Eric Brown, then the varsity football coach.

“Augustine, your body size is no match for soccer,” Twite remembered Brown telling him about his well-over-six-foot-tall frame. “Football really taught me how to be a leader, how to be a brother, how to understand people. It’s not just playing.”

Fond memories in Concord aren’t the only drive for them to pass along positive experiences to the next group. It’s also about teaching the students, especially those who might be discouraged from their passions, how to believe in their capabilities.

Zabayo, for example, was set on studying graphic design in college. Some of his teachers weren’t so sure that was the right fit.

“Maybe try construction,” he remembered one teacher telling him. “I was like, ‘No, I want to do graphic design.’ … I want to be able to go back to Africa and tell them, ‘Hey look, I was on the street with you guys. I was homeless. I didn’t have anything. But look what I can do on the computer.’ ”

It’s hard to overstate, Chilauskas said, how valuable having that type of perspective is for current students.

“Every student in a school community should see role models that reflect who they are in race and in gender and in all kinds of different diversity,” she said. “Concord was a refugee resettlement location for a long time, and Concord has a deep, rich heritage of supporting those refugee communities. … I think we need to find ways for them to become teachers so they can continue to support those parts of our community, because it’s wonderful.”

‘They roll their eyes’

The recent experiences for Zabayo and Twite working with the incoming freshmen has further opened their eyes to why they could possibly see a place for themselves as educators, even if it’s not in their immediate plans.

These sessions have come with an occasional challenge, which is part of the job of being a teacher.

Zabayo had a student who kept knocking on his chair during a discussion. He told him to stop. The student told him he was “so mean.”

“You think I’m mean?” Zabayo thought to himself, with the memory of his teacher beating him seared into his mind.

But it’s all part of what Twite said is helping the students to understand some of the privileges they enjoy.

A common challenge both have encountered: students who take out their phones when they’re not supposed to.

In Uganda, Zabayo said, the teacher would take the phone, drop it on the floor and smash it with his foot. In his mind, asking students to put away their phone for five minutes shouldn’t be too much to ask. The message doesn’t always resonate right away.

Even if it doesn’t click, having a younger leader at the head of a classroom could open students’ eyes to different lived experiences. As Chilauskas pointed out, a vast majority of current CHS staff are a bit “more veteran.”

“Adolescents do look up to people who are role models that are maybe five to 10 years older,” Chilauskas said. “We all look like their parents, and so they roll their eyes, versus having young role models within the school system. It’s a piece of what’s really needed.”

There’s also the opportunity for these more experienced teachers to learn from younger peers, like Zabayo and Twite.

“I think the teaching profession could use some fresh, new perspective where perhaps we have to get a bit more firm,” Chilauskas said. “If the young generation of teachers are looking at what we’re doing and saying, ‘(Students) might be getting away with too much,’ then we need to listen to that.”

‘Someone is watching’

Zabayo and Twite, highly goal-oriented individuals, don’t shy away from hard work. It’s another trait that might bode well for them if they decided to become teachers.

At points during college, Zabayo has worked three jobs and coached soccer on the Seacoast, all while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. Meanwhile, Twite headed home after his draining day with the incoming freshmen to help his mother apply for medical insurance.

None of it sounds glorious, they noted, but it’s what they have to do.

Zabayo in particular is steadfast in his opposition to anything that could interfere with his goals. Plymouth State is a big party school, he remembered being told; he’d never be able to focus on his schoolwork.

“You can ask my friends how many times they’ve seen me at a party,” he said before curling his fingers into a zero.

He won’t let anything knock himself off track.

For Zabayo and Twite, high school and college isn’t just something they’ve had to drag themselves to every day. It’s their opportunity to make it for themselves in America. If they want to succeed, they need to derive value from the experience.

While some of the students at orientation might not think it’s important to start thinking about what they want to study in college at 14 years old, Zabayo and Twite are there to tell them it’s not too early, either. Even if they themselves didn’t know precisely what they wanted to do at that age, they knew they needed to take advantage of what the school had to offer. Their families didn’t leave their home countries just for them to coast along.

Last summer, Zabayo felt validated in his approach. He had applied for a scholarship through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

“We saw your application. We went over your grades. You never missed school. How is that?” Zabayo remembered them asking him. “I told them, ‘The reason I’ve never missed school is exactly this: Because you guys called me, you already knew my attendance.’ That’s why I don’t miss school, because I know someone is watching.”

‘Part of a community’

Though neither Zabayo nor Twite said their current plan is to work as teachers in the district when they graduate from college, they’re certainly leaving the door open for future possibilities. Zabayo will graduate next spring, while Twite has two years left at St. Anselm College, where he’s studying accounting.

With the persistent shortage of college students pursuing careers in education, providing this exposure to them during the summer orientation and giving them a sense of what it could be like to work in the school district holds great value, Chilauskas said.

And for two people who appreciate the Concord community as much as Zabayo and Twite do, one doesn’t have to squint hard to see them fitting in well as teachers.

“It’s no secret that if you feel like you are part of a community – legitimately feel like you are part of it – you will learn more, you will participate more and you will keep more doors open,” Chilauskas said. “We have a wonderfully diverse, strong community, and so I think that the big goal for every student who’s here is to have experiences with staff members who share with them just how amazing this community is.”

Zabayo and Twite might not be pursuing teaching opportunities just yet, Chilauskas said, but she suspects that will change.

“At least one of them will come back,” she said. “I’m guaranteeing it.”

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