'America to Me': Meet OPRF Teacher Paul Collins

The OPRF head wrestling coach and special ed teacher talks about how school's reading program contributes to the its equity goals.
Courtesy of Starz
Collins with student Kendale McCoy

Paul Collins considers himself fortunate.

Amid the ongoing struggle to address the achievement gap between black and white students that has persisted for decades at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago — the subject of Steve James' (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) docuseries America to Me — the special ed teacher and OPRF head wrestling coach says the school's Elements of Reading program is one of the bright spots.

Elements of Reading is a double period of intensive instruction for students who come into the school reading significantly below grade level. Several people involved in the program — where students of color make up a majority year after year, according to Collins — are featured in the docuseries, including Collins, English teacher Emily Steffen and RTI coordinator Kristen McKee.

In the second episode, Collins and his colleagues attend a school board meeting to defend the reading program, which is facing an audit. "You see that word and you kind of know what it means. So we wanted to preemptively get out there and have teachers come up and speak to why the reading program was so important, especially for students of color," says Collins. "And I think that the fact that we do a lot of good work and we have the data to back it up, that's a big thing nowadays in education." 

Cameras follow Collins, who started as a security guard at OPRF 14 years ago and has been teaching for the past eight, both in his capacity as reading instructor and as wrestling coach; two of the 12 students James and his segment directors Bing Liu, Kevin Shaw and Rebecca Parrish followed through the 2015-16 academic year are on the wrestling team: seniors Kendale McCoy and Gabe Townsell.

Like all the other teachers I spoke with, Collins had some misgivings — after seeing a rough cut of all his scenes — about how some things would be perceived, especially some of his coaching methods. He worried about his swearing and certain scenes where he felt he came off as "callous" or even an "arrogant asshole." In episode four Kendale, who participates in two time-intensive extracurriculars, catches some flak from Collins for choosing to go on a quadrennial trip to Disney World with the rest of the OPRF band. Collins — in what seems a fairly typical high school coach move — questions Kendale's dedication to the wrestling program, and intimates that his spot as a varsity starter could be in jeopardy. Despite the sequence being edited in a light-hearted way — with scenes of Kendale goofing off with his bandmates on the trip interspersed with Collins barking at a roomful of wrestlers who presumably didn't have to decide between a grueling practice and a visit to sunny Orlando — Collins says he's received some harsh criticism.

But, also like the other teachers I spoke with, Collins doesn't come off as defensive or dismissive. "With social media and everything else, all you need is that one bad moment and then people can say, 'Well, he's not the man for this' or 'He's not doing good work,'" he says. "So I think I've been trying to work hard, because I'd already seen it and knew it was coming, to reflect on the things that I had seen and I had said. Because at the end of the day, I want to make sure I am being a better coach and a better teacher. So I can't do that if I'm not willing to see things that I may have done wrong or reflect on them and move forward."

A few weeks ago, Collins, currently on paternity leave, sat down to talk with THR about how the reading program intersects with the school's equity work, why racism is more covert in wrestling than football, and why he hopes America to Me will be a call to action for the school.

I'm curious how you view being a special ed teacher, and a teacher in the reading program, through the lens of the equity work in the school.

It just so happens that year in and year out the majority of the students in the [reading program], whether they're special education or not, are students of color. So it's a bittersweet thing where these students, who for some time probably weren't getting the resources they needed, are now getting them — but how many students [in years] prior to them were not getting the reading resources? But in the reading program itself, and I guess going back to the audit of it, kind of how it was explained in the [second] episode, like, the word "audit" doesn't necessarily have a positive connotation, you know? You see that word and you kind of know what it means. So we wanted to preemptively get out there and have teachers come up and speak to why the reading program was so important, especially for students of color. And obviously we did that, and by the end of that evening it was just kinda done. And I think that the fact that we do a lot of good work and we have the data to back it up, that's a big thing nowadays in education. And I know there have been kids, and primarily black kids, who are put in our class for behavior. But because we use the data and other things, we'll just say, "All right, this kid, he's reading at an eleventh-grade level, but he was put in a ninth-grade reading class. Why was he put in here?" They don't need the double [period of] reading, but do they still need some kind of support? So I think it's been able to provide a lot of support for not just students who really, really need the reading instruction, but also for some students who just think they're not good at school, who think they're not good readers or who are afraid to make mistakes, or whatever it may be. These are students who, in years prior to the reading program, may have just been placed in a lower track, and then kept on that lower track, and now who knows where their opportunities are.

There's a part of the doc where you talk about your time growing up in Oak Park close to the Chicago border. But you say you never really realized certain things about the high school until you returned as a teacher.

I guess I never experienced the classes where there were only one or two students of color. I always had classes where the makeup was similar to elementary school, middle school, the neighborhood. So I really didn't realize until I was teaching — because my first three years of teaching, I was teaching instructional-level classes, which is special education only, and I was doing English, and I think I taught, in three years, three white students — how many [white] students were in AP and honors classes, to how many more students there were in instructional classes that were students of color, you know? And part of it is I'm a young kid and I'm not really paying attention to those things — I didn't have to. That's a whole part of the white privilege thing, right? I don't have to pay attention to my surroundings as much because when I go into a room I get to feel comfortable. So when we talk about being more racially aware of some of the issues that go on not just in education in general but at Oak Park, where it's labeled as a diverse school, but understanding that the word "diversity" was the thing back in the day, so if you said diverse everything was cool, right? And I love Oak Park, obviously. I grew up here, I work at Oak Park, my wife and I live in Oak Park, this is where we want to be — but not under the guise of, it's just this perfect place. There are some things that we need to do to make sure that we don't just have this diverse school. We have a school where all the students are thriving.

Like what types of things?

So I'm kind of in a position where like I'm extremely fortunate to be a part of what we're doing [in the reading program] because it's creating a lot of positivity for the students who have come to our classrooms. And those are kids who, day one, say they hate reading and by the time they're done it's not like reading is their favorite thing in the world, but they feel more confident. And you cannot be good in school of you, A, don't know how to read, or B, don't feel confident in your reading. Science, math, whatever it is, you gotta be able to read and understand what you're reading. So that's why the program itself is huge because we are able to work with other teachers. And we just started implementing this World Studies Immersion where we did away with the two-period [reading] class, and now students have English, history and reading with the same cohort of teachers. We have the same 28 kids throughout three separate periods of the day. So it doesn't take away a period with the double period of reading and we are able to implement reading instruction, but also [the teachers] are doing the same things — we are introducing vocab, we're doing annotations, we're doing things similarly so that the students don't have to learn the same skill in three different ways. It's streamlined now. That's something that we piloted last year that Kristen McKee got moving.

Let me ask about the aspect of you being the wrestling coach. This is the quintessential corn-fed, white, Midwestern sport. How do talk to your kids about the racism they might encounter? There's the whole football game versus Hinsdale Central, which is a big centerpiece of episode three. But like with wrestling it struck me as more personal. it's a one-on-one game.

Yeah. There's a lot more — and I think Gabe [Townsell] touches on this — there's a lot more [subtle racism]. The idea that a black kid who wrestles isn't going to be able to [last] his whole match. So you'll hear people yelling, "Get him tired! Just make it till the second period!" And usually, again, people not blatantly going out and saying the N-word or anything — although we definitely have encountered things of that nature, more so from the crowd. At a wrestling match a kid isn't gonna call another kid the N-word 'cause he can just kick his butt right there! But our kids will have encounters, and if they bring things to our attention obviously we have conversations about it. In that moment people are going to say things to try to get you to react. And again, me being a white person, like, somebody comes up and calls me a cracker, it's not really gonna offend me. But I've never really had to deal with that. If a kid punched a kid in the face 'cause he got called the N-word, I would be upset because you can handle it better, but I also can't really be that upset because that's one of the most derogatory things you can be called, so who am I to tell you that that's not how to react? Now, can we talk about how we can better approach this next time or something? We did a racial equity thing a couple years ago, and one of the things the moderator, Courtlandt Butts, said that has always stuck with me is: You have to meet students where they are. Students are gonna come in on a good day, a bad day, whatever. If you meet them where they are and work from there, it's gonna create a much more positive environment.

What do you think will be the effect of this documentary on the school or the community or at large? And if it's different, what do you hope will be the effect?

It's already creating conversation, right?  And so people are talking about it, people are realizing —well, some people are realizing; some people are still in a more defensive space — there is an issue with making sure all students are achieving at Oak Park. I guess it'll be interesting to see if there can actually be any changes in policies based off of this.  It'll be interesting to see what happens after the 10th episode has aired and how many people are talking about it four weeks after that. How many people are still talking about this in May and how many people are talking about it over the summer to put in some things for next year to implement and go. Because we can have discussions until we're blue in the face, right? For me it's like we have to start putting things in place, like, this pilot that I talked about was put in place last year and now it covers our entire reading program. So we are providing more services with less time, but they also have an extra academic class, because we tried something; it wasn't because we kept talking about it. And we have enough resources as a school to where we can try things and they can fail. And I think at the very least this has created conversations outside of the school, which is good. So maybe the school will feel more pressure to do things. But I think it will depend upon how much pressure is really applied.

America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.