Eastern Michigan University
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Thomas A. Fleming Collection & Lecture Series

Thomas A. Fleming -- 1992 National Teacher of the Year

Special Education
Washtenaw Intermediate School District, Ann Arbor, Michigan

President George Bush,
Thomas Fleming, 1992 National Teacher of the Year
The White House Rose Garden -- April 7, 1992

WASHINGTON, DC - April 7, 1992 -  In 1950, Thomas A. Fleming was a high school dropout who couldn't read or write, ran with a tough crowd in the Detroit inner city, and at age 17 faced a bleak, uncertain future, one in which any further schooling seemed unlikely.

Now more than four decades later, Fleming, who holds a master's degree in special education and teaches at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been named the 1992 National Teacher of the Year.

Chosen from among the nation's more than 2.5 million elementary and secondary public school teachers, he was honored today at a White House ceremony where President Bush presented him with a crystal apple, the traditional symbol of teaching.

The oldest and most prestigious awards program to focus public attention on excellence in teaching, the National Teacher of the Year Program, now in its 41st year, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

A teacher for more than 23 years, Fleming has spent the last 20 of them as the lead teacher in the Washtenaw County juvenile detention center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  There he teaches integrated history, government and geography in what could be called a very non-traditional one-room schoolhouse.  The students, who are from 12 to 16 years of age and with third grade to college-level ranges in academic performance, spend anywhere from a week to two months or more at the detention facility while their cases wend their way through juvenile court.  During the course of a year, Fleming and two co-workers see over 200 students "I know I'm not going to have you long," Fleming tells his students.  "I'm just trying to get you in touch with what you can do...But this is a 50-50 proposition.  I cannot teach you if you don't want to learn."

He tells all his students that their situation is a matter of choice.  "You made some bad choices and so you are here.  You're young, you can change your mind.  There is still time to make good choices."

"But during the time we have them as students we try to instill in all of them an enthusiasm and curiosity for learning," says Fleming. 

Some of his students are neglected, some have learning disabilities, some can't read, some are repeat offenders.  A 16-year old boy finds himself in a tug-of-war between his success as a drug dealer and the traditional values he confronts at home.  "Nobody else wants to touch these kids," says Dale Rice, a special education professor at Eastern Michigan University, who has known Fleming for years.  They've
become so hardened over the years, there's just no way to get through.  But Tom gets through.  He relishes it."  "Tom can win them over in a very honest way," says Rice.  "He's a very honest person and you feel you can trust him completely." 

Tall and white-haired, Fleming, 59, is a commanding presence in the classroom as he walks around checking the students' progress on their assignments, offering insights and, always, making connection as the lesson takes its own shape.  "Over the years I have also developed a number of teaching strategies to attract troubled youth," he says.  As an example, he cites a summer "Reading Laboratory" in which
he became the stenographer for students as they read books and verbally dictated a summary of the day's readings.  "These students became so excited about having such personal attention that they read voraciously as never before," he says. 

As a measure of his success in touching the lives of young people, he recounts with pride the story of one student who went on to become a lawyer and of another, A. Whitney Brown, a performer and writer on television's "Saturday Night Live," who dedicated a book of his to Fleming.

One reason for Fleming's success is that, coming as he did from a troubled adolescence, he sees a little of himself in his students.  He gets through to them because he has traveled many of their roads: the environs of abandonment, poverty, racism, difficulty in school.

Shortly after his birth his care was entrusted to his maternal grandparents when his mother no longer was able to care for him.  It was the depths of the depression and she said she would be back when she could afford to raise him.  However, he saw her only twice, once when he was 9 or 10 years old, and again as a young adult.  He never knew his father. 

But he was saved from the streets by the love of his grandparents, Carrie Bell and Gordon Starks, one of three black families in the Detroit neighborhood where he grew up.  He still remembers the pain of the cruel racial taunts he encountered daily.  Although his grandfather could not read and his grandmother had never gotten beyond the third grade, "they planted a deep seed," says Fleming.

However, discouraged by his inability to cope with his studies or find a job, he joined the National Guard and became a member of an all-black combat engineers unit.  When the unit was activated in 1950 preparatory to going overseas, Fleming left high school, never having really learned to read, write or spell. 

His National Guard unit ultimately served with the occupation troops in Germany in the early 1950s, a period Fleming regards as a turning point in his life.  "I consider my five and a half years of service in the U. S. Army part of my 'higher education' because my experiences there changed my life and gave me the desire to learn and to improve myself." 

"My basic desire was just to learn to read the Bible," he recalls, and with some periods of intensive self-study and off-duty Army courses, his first major feat was to learn all 16 chapters of the Book of Mark. 

Returning from his overseas service in 1955, he went to night school, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and began to pursue a degree at the Detroit Bible College (now William Tyndale College), graduating with a bachelor's of religious education in 1964.  In 1968 he received a master of arts degree in regular and special education from Eastern Michigan University.

During this time, he was also actively involved as a Baptist minister with the youth of Detroit's northwest neighborhoods which lead to his interest in adolescents with special needs.

His first teaching job was at the W. J. Maxey Boys Training School, a state institution for juvenile offenders, where he was hired as a social studies teacher in 1968.  When one of Maxey's teen-age charges was transferred to a mental facility, Fleming and a colleague protested, saying the boy, although tough to handle, was bright and did not belong in a mental institution.  But their protests were ignored.

"We were told it wasn't our business," Fleming says.  "But we made it our business."  The two teachers went to the mental facility, retrieved the boy and returned him to Maxey.  In 1971, he was hired to teach in the Washtenaw County juvenile detention school program.  Five years later he assumed his current role of coordinating or lead teacher in addition to his teaching responsibilities and also works with a variety of supporting agencies, including the police department, court staff, volunteers and school district personnel.

Married to a former third grade teacher, Fleming is the father of three children, ranging in age from 13 to 30.  He resides in Ann Arbor with his wife and 13 year old son. 

As National Teacher of the Year, Fleming will spend a year traveling and speaking before numerous educational and community groups and civic organizations, stressing the importance of teaching.  "What I would most want to communicate to the public is that the teaching profession cannot exist or succeed in a vacuum," he says.  "I would challenge responsible citizens in every community to come together to develop a plan of action based on a set of principles akin to a declaration of educational rights for our youth."

The National Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the Teachers of the Year from the 50 states, five extra-state jurisdictions, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools.  The State Teachers of the Year have been selected on the basis of nominations by students, teachers, principals and school administrators in each district, city and county of the state or other entity.

The other finalists in the 1992 National Teacher of the Year program were Maria Vigil, a kindergarten teacher from Fullerton, California; Marion Lipinski, a fifth grade teacher from Mentor, Ohio; and Rosa Lujan, a fifth and sixth grade teacher of bilingual education from El Paso, Texas.

The State Teachers of the Year are submitted to the Council of Chief State School Officers in  Washington, DC, where a blue-ribbon panel of representatives from thirteen leading national educational organizations reviews the data on each candidate and selects four finalists.  The selection panel then personally interviews each finalist before naming the National Teacher of the Year.

More information about National Teacher Of The Year program

National teachers of the year 1952 - 2006