Connecting lessons with students’ lives

“When I talked to people at Mount Holyoke, it was very inviting, very supportive. They valued my perspective and what I brought to the table. I talked about being Black [and] being in education, and they valued that perspective.”

Dominic Copeland ’24 has a more measured outlook on life than most. During the pandemic, he underwent hip replacement surgery. Subsequently, he caught COVID-19 and almost died, spending more than a week in the hospital.

The near-death experience refocused his dreams. He quit a business and sales career to become an English teacher at Lynn English High School in Lynn, Massachusetts, a working-class city a few miles from Boston. There, he focuses on English language learners.

“I decided I wanted to go into education, where I could make a difference and provide value to other people. I said, ‘If it’s all over tomorrow, I want to have that legacy,’” he said.

Giving back is intrinsic to Copeland’s nature. As a child outside Philadelphia, he spent many years enduring homelessness and poverty despite attending a predominantly wealthy suburban high school. Often feeling like an outsider around his more privileged peers, he vowed to ameliorate those feelings in others through public service. Later, Copeland became the first Black city councilor in his hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts.

“Growing up, I felt like we were always rich in other ways. My mother was always telling us that we could accomplish anything. I always said, ‘When I get older, I want to be the type of person to show and guide others to be successful.’ And that’s where teaching comes in.”

He chose Lynn because many students cope with poverty. He recognized himself in their struggles.

“My whole goal was to work with students who were like my friends and me,” he said.

A colleague at Lynn English suggested Mount Holyoke for his master’s degree because she attended as an undergraduate and loved it.

“She said it was a great college. Then when I talked to people at Mount Holyoke, it was very inviting, very supportive. They valued my perspective and what I brought to the table. At the time, we were coming out of the whole George Floyd [aftermath]. I talked about being Black, being in education and the things that you go through, and they valued that perspective,” he said.

During classes with Ruth Hornsby and Catherine Swift, he appreciated the classroom discussions but also relished examining what he calls the “emotional aspects of education.” Attention to issues such as student responses to trauma added an important, nuanced layer to his graduate school experience.

“This allowed me to unlock the trauma that I faced growing up and how those things impact and affect me even to this day. I got to understand my own triggers and the things that trigger students,” he said.

For instance, Copeland would often bristle at loud noises, a common trigger for some of his students. The sound of a pop or a bang could cause a classroom to devolve into crisis mode. He appreciated being able to talk about this and share strategies for managing these sensitivities.

“I checked into a lot of different schools, and they weren’t as welcoming as Mount Holyoke was. For me, I needed to go somewhere where I would be supported and appreciated,” he said.

In the classroom, he strives to support and appreciate his students, many of whom feel insecure about their abilities. He tries to connect lessons to students’ personal lives, a practice he calls “bringing forth education from within,” by asking them how each new unit might relate to their lives.

“Right now, we’re studying Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers,’ about theories of intelligence. A lot of students come in believing they’re not intelligent, or they’re not capable or they’re not confident enough to accomplish something because they weren’t born that way. Other students will say, ‘I’m not smart. I’m not intelligent. I can’t do this.’ It’s about changing that perspective,” he said. “Malcolm Gladwell has the 10,000-hour rule. You can put in a certain number of hours in order to master a craft. So I started to have students look at ‘What things have you put 10,000 hours into so far?’”

For example, he encourages students to think about basketball players such as Kyrie Irving, who often references the rule when he talks about practicing.

“It changes their mindset from fixed to growth,” he said. “Irving was going against guys who were seven or eight years older, but he’d put in the hours to master his craft. You can accomplish anything. You just have to know what you want and never stop until the dream is the reality.”

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