Team Leader Mustafa Sulaiman Sees Himself in His Students

Excel Academy of Roseland (Chicago) team leader Mustafa Sulaiman said his greatest joy is interacting everyday with the students of the Camelot Education program. He said he is usually one of the first people at the school that they meet and that gives him the opportunity to reveal himself to them.

Sulaiman, 39, is one of the original Excel Academy staff who started Camelot’s program in Chicago six years ago. Like executive director Tyree Booker, he came from Philadelphia where Camelot originated its accelerated program in 2004. He took a chance on Camelot in making the move, starting as a behavioral specialist and has been promoted to team leader. His wife moved out after him and is now director of student services. They have two sons now.

“One of the first aspects of my own life that I reveal to the students is I was just like them. I was them; a troubled youth who thought no one understood me. I wasn’t a bad student but I wasn’t a great one either,” he said. “My mother sent me to Scotland School for Veteran’s Children and it made a difference in my life. You see, I tell them, I remember what it’s like being on the other side of the desk. I didn’t have the support of my community as a young African American male. If you think no one understands you – I understand you. I was you. These kids see through a phony instantly.”

As a team leader, it’s Sulaiman’s task to wear different hats during the day. Sometimes he’s making sure teachers have the supplies they need. Sometimes it might be a student who hasn’t had a meal that day, or might need behavioral intervention. What’s important is that the students need to know someone’s got their back.

“I’m always using my own family dynamic as a way of reaching them,” he said. “I love it when I’m speaking with them, hearing them out and they have the ‘Ah-ha’ moment; that moment when the light of understanding shows in their eyes. Usually I’m the one lifting them up but not always. Sometimes I might be having a tough day and they lift me up. It’s a lot of giving and receiving mutual support here; just like a family loves and supports each other. That’s what we do and we do it every day.”

Sulaiman said that the students at the Excel Academy program know the staff and teachers care about them. That they don’t have to be afraid to open up or share with a staff member what they’re going through. Many of the students come from traumatic backgrounds and have been exposed to the street violence of the tough inner city Chicago.

“This was the first career position I had. I’d always worked; I had numerous jobs but not a career. For a few years, my wife was the main wage earner in our family and as a man that bothered me because I wasn’t holding down my end,” he said. “Working for Camelot has made me a better man; a better husband and better father. When I first came out here, I didn’t know how to tie a tie. Some of my male students feel embarrassed about that. I tell them they don’t have to be ashamed about it. Someone had to show me how to tie a tie too. You see, Camelot changed my life and working here I can be a part of changing the lives of our students. For me, Friday’s aren’t the big day of the week. It’s Monday’s, because I can return to Camelot and the students I love to work with.”

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