Team USA

Teaching makes me a better athlete, says Memphis educator bound for the Olympics

PHOTO: Carter Malone Group
Sable Otey, a 31-year-old physical education teacher for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, is a member of the U.S. bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Sable Otey is both a teacher and an athlete, striking a synergy that motivates her students as well as herself.

And soon, the physical education teacher from Memphis will head to South Korea as an alternate on the U.S. bobsled team — and the first black mother in the team’s history.

Perseverance, discipline, hard work, and being a lifelong learner — they’re qualities that Otey has developed in both endeavors and now seeks to pass along to her students at Lowrance K-8.

But her path to the Winter Games started in impoverished circumstances, similar to that of many of her students.

Otey grew up in Memphis’ Binghamton neighborhood, where she was raised by a grandmother who struggled to make ends meet. Her track and field coach at East High School, Danny Young, often dropped off food with her family when money was low. And her high school Spanish teacher, Malika Collins, was so influential in Otey’s life that she now calls Collins her godmother.

“She saw that this girl struggling; she saw my grandma, a single mom, working hard. She saw this girl needs some help; this girl needs some guidance,” said Otey, who graduated from East in 2005. “She’s always motivating. She’s always inspiring. … I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Otey went on to become a track and field star at George Mason University in Virginia and was on track to compete in the 2012 Olympics when she became pregnant with her son. In 2015, her Olympic dreams were rekindled when a friend encouraged her to try out for the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

Otey, 31, spoke with Chalkbeat about how teaching has influenced her as an athlete and how she’s sharing Olympic dreams with her students.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s a lot of work. The support of the school, the support of the principal does help; it plays a major role. It’s tough, though. Most lunch breaks I take a nap because I’m tired from training. I train before work and then I teach, take a nap at lunch, and then train after work and pick my son up and try and spend time with my family. The next day, I start the same thing over again. I have a plan, a daily plan, and I just try to get everything done on my plan. It’s exhausting, but you’re motivated so you find your “why” and keep pushing because of that.

So, what is your “why”?

My thing was I was trying to find my purpose. I told my goddad, who is a pastor, “What’s my purpose?” He said, “You’re living it!” But I realized I have been an inspiration to so many people, so many kids, so many adults even in my community. Just coming from Binghamton being told some of the things that some of the kids are being told now that they’re not going to be anything. They’re not going to get a college degree. I’ve overcome all of those obstacles. I have a master’s degree in education. I’m a world-class athlete, wife, and a mother. I’ve overcome so many barriers.

I think it’s my job to do that because it’s a village. Back when villages were raising people, a village actually raised me: my principals, my teachers, people in my community. All of those people helped me become who I am today. I don’t know my biological dad. My goddad stepped in and has taken care of me, treating me like one of his own kids. My grandma took care of me because my mom had me when she was 15. My mom was around, but my mom was young, so my grandma took on that duty.

I deal with a lot of kids and they explain their issues to me. So, I said the same stuff you’re going through, I went through the same thing. And had I let my circumstances determine who I was going to be or had I let those situations put those limitations on my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How has your school been involved in your Olympic pursuits?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Otey pushes several students in a makeshift bobsled.

I get so much energy from the kids. They’re so excited about this. They’ll say, “What’s our workout today, coach?” They’re excited to be in P.E. Most kids these days, they don’t want to be in P.E. They don’t want to sweat their hair out; they don’t want to mess up anything, mess their clothes up. They give me a great deal of motivation, just to talk to these kids and build personal relationships with these kids.

I keep them up to speed with everything. They’re really into the actual training so they always ask me so many questions about my workout and what they can do. But the kids are still growing and they’re not ready to do weightlifting training, so I show them alternative things they can do instead of lifting weights. And then I show them videos of what it is that I do. (Otey plans to take short videos to send to her students while she is overseas.)

What are some of the things about being a teacher that have made you a better athlete, or vice versa?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey

Perseverance both ways. Being a teacher, pressing through no matter what. No matter all the adversities that I face, just constantly pressing through. And being able to share that with the kids. When you can actually talk to them and actually relate to them as a real person they take well to that. They’re excited to see you, they’re excited to listen and actually do what the lesson requires. So, it just kind of piggybacks off of one another. I learn from both aspects as a teacher and a world-class athlete because I was never the best athlete. I’ve always had to work to get there. My cousin wouldn’t even work that hard at practice and then go to a track meet and she’d be great. For me, I had to work three times as hard to get to that level and maintain. A lot of times I got to places because my coach saw my work ethic. He saw how hard I tried and how dedicated I was. And I tell that to my kids too. You might not even be the best, but we see you if you’re actually trying. We’re not going to overlook that. And people in the real world will see that. They see this person is a hard worker. He’s coachable. He’s going to try his best and give you 110 percent. You’re not going to get overlooked because you’re not a Michael Jordan.

In this sport, I had to learn to be a student again. I’ve always been in a situation where people asked me for help. And for me to go to this sport, I had to learn to humble myself a little bit and actually listen. I realized you have to be coachable as an adult, as an athlete. This translates over to the real world as well. It’s not just inside of a classroom.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Sable Otey practices with the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”