Standing in front of a piano, directing his chorus students’ voices by waving his hands, Ladell Fortune is also trying to shape their lives.
Students say he is relatable, having grown up in the same neighborhood they have and, at 31, being one of the younger teachers on campus.
When 17-year-old David Kyler signed up for choir a year and a half ago, he took notice of his teacher’s flashy bow ties and immaculate style.
Soon, David started picking his own clothes out more carefully and learned making an impression was important.
“He made me think about how I presented myself to people, and now I’m fascinated with bow ties,” David said. “He showed me there’s more to put on than a suit and tie. He set an example, and that’s so cool.”
Besides learning how to dress sharply or hit the perfect pitch, there are life lessons in Fortune’s classroom.
He was still teaching when a girl stayed after class to ask how she could tell her mother she is pregnant, when the seniors asked for help filling out college applications, and when
his star choir student asked Fortune to play the piano at his grandfather’s funeral.
To make successful students, teachers have to build relationships beyond the class periods, Fortune said.
“They don’t come to me for just music,” he said. “We connect through music, but, because of that music, I can show them how to be successful in other areas of their life.”
In building trust with students, Fortune has also set a standard for teaching in Richmond County. The district named him its 2011-12 Teacher of the Year this month for his ability to connect with young people.
When a team of five judges visited the five finalists for the award, judge Gloria Davis saw something
special in the choir room, she said.
She could tell the students’ attentiveness was there because of a mutual respect, something not all teachers can attain.
“He just had that thing,” Toy said. “It’s that one thing you’re looking for. Point number one, students want you to be fair and, two, they want respect. In other words, they do not see him as a best buddy – that line is drawn clear – but there is a bond.”
Fortune said he wants his students to be successful while feeling the same gratification from music he got as a child. As a choir student at Butler, Fortune competed in state competitions
and sang a solo at Carnegie Hall.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern University and a master’s from Boston University. After graduating, he said, his goal was to go back to Butler and show students what they can become.
He spent one year teaching at Sego Middle School before getting back to the chorus room at Butler.
When he returned, Fortune said, he realized he was dealing with a different generation of students who needed a different type of instruction. When he was in high school, he never saw a pregnant teenager in the halls and never knew anyone in a gang.
Now that those issues are woven into the everyday experience of the student body, Fortune said, he knew he had to step up. Some of his students are teens without parents, without emotional support or with problems
that used to only be for adults.
In the future, Fortune sees himself pushing more students on to successful lives after his classroom. But for most of his students, the success is right now.
“If you don’t have a father, he’s really good about being that step-in parent,” said Butler senior Pantoja Allen. “All these kids here are his daughters and sons.”