The Untold Work of Teachers: “No Kid is Not Getting the Shirt”
This teacher knows that the key to success in high school is an early sense of belonging, and he figured out an amazing way to achieve it.
Scott Wilson has been teaching high school for about… a thousand years. Well, 26, to be exact. And his classroom reflects that long teaching history as well as world history, the subject he teaches.
Posters, maps, and one bulletin board he’s particularly proud of. It features photos of his former students all over the world, proudly wearing Central High School t-shirts. He loves seeing his school represented in so many places, and reconnecting with former students who send him pictures for decades after they leave his history classes.
Wilson’s classes are well-known (he dropped the “Mr.” years ago). He’s the kind of history teacher who jumps up on chairs, tells dad jokes, tries out new lingo “popular with the teens,” and creates an experience every day for his students.
“He’s honestly a lot,” say some of his students, “but when you’re here, you’re part of the whole experience, the whole show.”
The student telling me this is my daughter, and in full disclosure, the teacher is Scott Wilson, my first cousin. Ady’s a freshman standing about five-foot-one in a school of over 3,000 kids. History starts her day off. Along with her classmates, she get a daily reminder, first thing, that they are part of H*U*S*H, Honors US History.
Their water bottles and coffee cups sport H*U*S*H stickers and several of them arrive wearing H*U*S*H t-shirts, a design echoing the old M*A*S*H TV show that absolutely none of them have seen (or maybe even heard of). A student designed the shirts years ago, and when the form came home for me to order one for $15, I wondered why a history class has its own t-shirt. It was another $15 in the long line of expenses you see for student sports and activities, but I sent the check and made a mental note to ask about it.
When I sat down in Wilson’s classroom to chat with him, I asked if he makes shirts every year. “Yep, every year has a shirt, usually a sticker too, sometimes some other swag. And every kid gets one. No kid is not getting the shirt.”
I pushed on that. I know not every kid remembers their $15, and that many classmates might not have the extra income to buy one. I asked how he made sure every kid got one, who usually paid for them, and honestly, why a t-shirt is even a priority for him. Class was in session. Wilson explained:
“See the thing is, high school is a big place. Huge, actually. And what I’ve learned in all these years is that when you get here, the most important thing is to find your people. If you find a positive place to belong here, you’ll do just fine here.
So I guess my goal is to make sure that if one of my students hasn’t found people, hasn’t found a positive place to belong, that they’ll find it in my class. That’s why we have silly names for our classes and that’s why we make t-shirts — it gives kids something to belong to. So we sell the shirts to everyone who can or wants to buy one, and then I just personally buy enough extra so that every kid gets one. It’s not that much, and for some of my students, that shirt is one of 2 or 3 shirts they have in rotation. So I know it makes an impact, in a bunch of ways.”
This is such an amazing example of a teacher’s untold work. Do any of us think of teachers as brand managers or marketers? Not usually. But this is Branding 101. Wilson creates an experience: a class that people talk about in the hallways, a name, a logo, a t-shirt. And then he uses that brand to create a tribe, a place of belonging, a thing you’re loyal to for years to come. When one of those kids someday visits the World War II site they learned about in 9th grade, that shirt gets packed in a suitcase, worn, photographed, and sent back to Mr. Wilson.
Because that kid found a tribe, and a place to belong.
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When I started Alpaca, I didn’t know the true challenges facing teachers: why they’re spending money out of pocket on supplies, what obstacles consistently stand in their way, why we’re seeing more teacher attrition than ever.
So I started the work by spending a few hours every week touring schools, talking to teachers and principals, and hearing some of the most extraordinary stories of dedication, know-how, and problem solving I’ve ever heard.
In it I found a universe of untold work — jobs teachers do that no one knows, problems they quietly solve to help our families, things they’ve figured out and never get recognized for. In this series, The Untold Work of Teachers, I’m sharing what I’ve learned.