Love comes first

Author, educator and debate coach Brandon P. Fleming talks about the power of compassion to radically change -- and save! -- lives.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Kanoe Namahoe

“Stories change people more than information ever will,” keynote speaker Brandon P. Fleming, told educators at the opening general session of the 2023 ASCD Annual Conference. “Stories are the gateway to empathy.”

Fleming, former debate coach at Harvard University, founder and CEO of the Veritas School of Social Sciences, and author of “Miseducated: A memoir,” on Saturday morning in Denver gave attendees a glimpse into his own story to illustrate the transformative power of equity in education. 

Describing his educational experiences as a young student, Fleming said he was labeled and passed along by educators throughout the day, while dreading the final bell that signaled his return to an abusive home life. 

“I just want you to imagine how many young people might be sitting in classrooms all across your state, all across this country, and they too do not know how to ask for help. But what they need is one teacher with enough compassion, with enough empathy to be able to ask the right questions.”

Fleming shared how he turned away from his painful experiences at school and toward the streets where he became involved in a gang, and sold drugs. College basketball presented an opportunity to change this trajectory, but a career-ending injury led him to drop out, and an assembly-line job proved to be a miserable experience, he said. He described having a “harsh realization” about fulfilling the predictions of a lifetime of detractors.”I was left with a life I no longer wanted,” he said, sharing how that night he attempted to take his own life. 

Empathy and equity in action

It wasn’t until committing to a second chance at a college education — with that opportunity hanging in the balance over an essay flagged for plagiarism — that Fleming says one educator unexpectedly pushed the paper in question aside and said, “I want to know more about you.”

This professor asked about his family, his ambitions, his struggles, and then shared some of her own struggles and experiences as well, Fleming recalled.   

“She put my humanity before my education … she cared about connecting with me as a person before connecting with me as a student.”

It was in this space that Fleming said he was able to share his story, and the struggles he had been experiencing coming back to college with what he said was a “middle-school  education level” – the academics, peers and the entire educational environment. 

But the professor did not chastise or fail him. Instead she hugged him and then returned to the matter of the paper, and said,“We are going to redo it,” he recalled. 

“She saw exactly where I was and she was willing to meet me there,“ he said.”That is the definition of equity. It’s our willingness as educators, as leaders to see people for who they are and to meet them exactly where they are.”

And this was not a theoretical gesture, Fleming clarified. What this looked like in action was months of extra time outside of class, meeting at a bookstore to work on reading and hone writing skills, and connecting Fleming with Black authors like Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, giving him a glimpse into a world of Black scholarship to which he had not yet had access, he said. 

“Education is not what changed me, love is what changed me. Empathy is what changed me.” Fleming offered, urging educators to adopt this philosophy and change the culture. 

While formal teacher and leadership education and training often relies on data and metrics and the subjects at hand, it is not these elements that ultimately made the difference for Fleming, he stressed. 

“Every one of us in this room has the moral responsibility to love first and teach second.”

Access and equity

“Whether you come from privilege or whether you come from poverty . . . our failures and our successes mean absolutely nothing if we don’t use them to make somebody else’s life better,” Fleming stated.

When he came to Harvard as an educator, Fleming said he saw the lack of Black representation in a summer residency program for young gifted scholars from around the world, and realized how his own experiences and journey had positioned him to make an impact for others.

Fleming pitched an idea to create a pipeline of Black students from underresourced schools in inner-city Atlanta to participate in the program. The idea included full scholarships from the university for the students,  along with a year of personal investment from Fleming who on Saturdays taught students — who, he noted, had no previous experience or access to debate — from the Harvard curriculum in areas such as philosophy, rhetoric and others. 

The project came to fruition when the students who made up the first cohort swept their competition and set the stage for what would be five consecutive years to date of number-one finishes in the program’s global academic debate tournament.

The compassion of an educator

But the message for attendees today was “not about Harvard,” Fleming said, calling on educators to take action in their own schools and communities to seek out talented students and meet them where they are. 

“There is so much talent that exists in many of the places that some of us don’t want to go,” he said. “We need people who are willing to go after those students the same way many years ago a teacher came after me,” he urged. 

In closing, Fleming acknowledged the pain he experienced reliving and sharing his story in writing his memoir, but said the endeavor was important to give others insight. “Why was I willing to pay that price? Because we cannot reach people that we don’t understand.”

“Everybody, and I mean everybody, has the capacity to change if they can just experience the compassion of an educator.”

Katharine Haber is an editor for SmartBrief Education, covering trends and issues in K-20.