Teaching for the Best Reason: Gratitude

“I am extremely grateful” is a phrase Brilla College Prep Middle School fifth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Charles Shu, repeated several times in our conversation. And while I did meet with Mr. Shu in a room with Thanksgiving decorations, it is clear from our conversation that the inspiration for this phrase was not the sign on the wall. This sentence is testament to his character: Mr. Shu is a deeply grateful person.

Mr. Shu has his parents to thank for fostering within him the virtue of gratitude. Born and raised in communist China, Mr. Shu’s parents faced many hardships as children including going to bed hungry and having their houses broken into at night. When they moved to the United States as young adults, they were blown away by the opportunities here. Thanks to their hard work, they earned prestigious jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. They settled in Madison, CT where they gave Mr. Shu the childhood they never had. “My parents told me this country has been incredibly kind to us,” Mr. Shu said. “I had to find a way to give back.”

Mr. Shu with his father, Dr. Yue-Zhong Shu, and mother, Mrs. Xiao-Hong Zhou

As a child, Mr. Shu was inspired by the dedication and work ethic of two of his teachers who had previously served in the armed forces. He saw that both of their jobs–teaching children and serving in the armed forces–require dedication and discipline and are ways to give back to one’s country. “I consider teaching a very patriotic act,” Mr. Shu shared. “Teachers are the ones who form the future of a country.” With this conviction in mind, Mr. Shu always thought he would end up teaching. For that reason, he majored in history and earned his certification in teaching. But he did not plan to teach right away. He had plans of going to dentistry school and thought that, after a long career of being dentist, he would return to the classroom as a teacher.

After graduating from college, though, Mr. Shu was unsure if he still wanted to become a dentist. In order to discern what to do next, he took some time off of school and worked as a tour guide in New York City. One Saturday in the Spring of 2017, after concluding a tour, one woman from the group came up to him and said, “You really know your stuff. Are you a teacher?” Mr. Shu responded that he was, indeed, a certified teacher. The woman turned to one of the ladies beside her–who Mr. Shu later found out was her granddaughter–and said, “Sweetie, aren’t you looking to hire some teachers? Why don’t you give him your business card.” The woman kindly handed him her business card and he quickly read it: Mrs. Kelsey LaVigne, Superintendent, Brilla Public Charter Schools. 

The encounter was the push he needed: teaching is what he should do now. That night, he sent Mrs. LaVigne his resume and cover letter. Within 48 hours, he was in touch with Mr. Matthew Larsen, the founding principal of Brilla College Prep Middle School, which would open its doors in the Fall of 2017. Mr. Shu traveled to the South Bronx for an interview and demo lesson. Shortly thereafter he was given an offer to be part of the founding staff of Brilla College Prep Middle School. “I owe a lot to Brilla,” Mr. Shu told me. “Things really fell into place when I started working at Brilla.”

Mr. Shu works with a parent at Parent University

“Uplifting” and “inspiring” were two words he used to describe the Brilla community. He called his coworkers “fantastic people” for whom he is “incredibly grateful.” His coworkers have the same thing to say about him. They expressed their gratitude for his “spirit of collaboration” and “continual support.”  “I find the way that Brilla promotes a bond with families and the wider community a beautiful thing,” Mr. Shu said. He told me that he feels particularly grateful to be in an environment where he has the opportunity to get to know his students’ families. Although not directly, Mr. Shu’s students likewise get to know his own parents. “I often remind my students of two pieces of advice that my family used to tell me: ‘don’t waste time or time will waste you’ and ‘hard work will always beat intelligence when intelligence fails to work hard.’” 

Before concluding our conversation, I asked Mr. Shu where he sees himself in the future. After pausing for a few moments, Mr. Shu responded, “I want to give great honor to my family name.” Mr. Shu is well on his way to accomplishing this goal as he himself embodies what his parents fostered within him: a deep sense of gratitude that compels one to give back. 

Mr. Shu shares some tips to one of his students at the Mott Haven Celebration

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danielle Schirripa is Executive Associate of the Brilla School Network. In her role, she assists the Executive Director in establishing systems and processes for Brilla’s external communication and fundraising. She studied Mathematics and Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Originally from Boston, MA, she enjoys spending time at the beach and watching the Red Sox. 

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