July 19, 2023
Meet-a-Ram: In the Richmond area, James Gordon shapes young minds close to home
Elementary school principal and Disney honoree earned his master’s degree at VCU and is a role model for educators – present and future.
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Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.
James A. Gordon, the principal at Glen Lea Elementary School in Henrico County, is devoted to helping underserved youth in the Richmond metro area. One of his projects, when he was principal of Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School in South Richmond, helped five Richmond city elementary students earn full scholarships to Virginia Union University. Largely for that effort, he was named a Magic Maker by the Walt Disney Co. in 2021, receiving a free trip to Disney World and being featured on “Good Morning America.”
Tell me a little about your background.
I was born and raised here in Richmond, Virginia. I went to Henrico County Public Schools. At Highland Springs High School, I went to their technical center where they had an early childhood education center. I knew early on as a teenager that I wanted to become a teacher. As a junior, I was the only male in the class. They used to call me Mr. James. Statistically speaking, African American males make up less than 2% of the teaching population in K-12.
At the center, we had children who were pre-K, like age 3. They would come for a half-day, and we would provide them with a snack and lesson plans. That was my first exposure to being a teacher.
What role did your family play in you becoming a teacher?
My mom wanted to become a teacher at Virginia Union, but she wasn’t able to afford to finish. So, she went to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and became a nurse. I am basically fulfilling my mom’s dream. That is why I have worked with students from economically challenged backgrounds. Glen Lea has 88% poverty; that means eight out of 10 scholars come from an impoverished or economically disadvantaged background. But they still have so much potential. My “why” is my mom for why I became a teacher.
Why did you decide to go back to school at VCU and get a master’s degree?
I knew early on I wanted to be a teacher. Once I became a teacher, I knew I wanted to become an administrator. I decided to go to VCU and got my admin degree. I then became a principal. I spent four years in Richmond Public Schools as a principal, and this is my first year in Henrico. I had the opportunity to have some great mentors along the way. They mentored me and helped to grow me. I love serving as an administrator. I’m also working on my doctoral program at Regent University. I am hoping to graduate in the next year.
How did you get involved in the scholarship program with Virginia Union University?
That was a blessing. It was a connection through the university. They have a partnership with Richmond Public Schools. They had already given out scholarships to eighth-grade scholars throughout the city. We were able to get scholarships to five of our fifth-graders. I can’t believe it happened. It’s still mind-blowing. I take no credit for it. I was just the person who said yes when they offered the scholarships. We said we would select the scholars. We’d develop the criteria, and it was outstanding, because families have children who can now afford to go to college. It was a full scholarship to Virginia Union.
What was the overarching goal?
The South Side of Richmond not only has a high African American population but a high Latino population. Several students we selected identified as Latino or Latinx. Yes, Virginia Union is a historically Black college, but we wanted to broaden where this reached and give as many different groups as possible an opportunity.
When did you start getting recognized for this work?
That was so interesting. I try to deflect and say “I can’t take any credit. I’m just here helping and serving.” That night of the event, it was featured on the news. I guess people got wind of it. From there, I was featured on “Good Morning America.” I was able to go to Disney for free. They interviewed me for Disney Magic Maker, which I had never known anything about. In September 2021, I was identified as a Disney Magic Maker. “Good Morning America” did a feature story. We flew to Disney and talked about what we did. I really can’t take any credit. It was all about the team. Everybody plays his or her role.
What can be done to increase the number of Black men in education?
I think to start, you need to be visible and present. I have students here who approach me and say they want to be a principal one day. I don’t take any credit for that, but that is pretty cool. One of the scholars in our school who has locks like me said he wanted to portray me for a program at school. I was like “Oh my gosh!” He interviewed me a couple days ago. He asked me if I always wanted to be a principal and I said yes. He said he wanted to be a principal. But he looks like me. They need to see it.
Talk about the group you served on that helps Black teachers explore principal roles.
I served on that group where we led sessions for a year. The Henrico Education Foundation funded it. It was open to everyone but had a specific focus on people of color, which included my Latino brothers, and we have people who identify as female. I try to be open. I have a student here who is nonbinary. I want to make sure I am very respectful. Of course, African American males were the focus. We did sessions on dressing for an interview, how to nail the interview, how to build a positive climate as a principal. We found ways to encourage other African American males to join the club. We actually had people who got assistant principal gigs because of it.
What satisfaction do you get out of being in education?
I love it. It brings me joy. It brightens my day. I love to connect with the students and fellas. I love to connect with families. They had these cupcakes delivered for Valentine’s Day. I was thinking that not everybody had a happy Valentine’s, so I delivered cupcakes for every teacher. We must let the teachers know that we love them.
How challenging is the education field these days?
It’s tough. We had a loss of learning opportunities with virtual learning. Not everybody learns well on a device. Some scholars really need that personal connection. Nothing beats hands-on learning. And then there is the curriculum and high-stakes testing. There is still that measure of teacher accountability. It’s hard to find a balance of positive morale while still holding everybody accountable.
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
I have a sense of that. I want to work on my doctoral program. My ultimate goal is to become a college professor. I would love to be a college professor. I want to teach the things you don’t learn in a book about how to be an educator. You need to know how to make connections and build relationships. You need to know how to navigate politics, how to initiate conversations. That happens everywhere.
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