When he reflects on being born in St. Paul and living most of his life in the city, Martin Odima says, “It makes me feel good that I grew up in this area.”
Odima, who received his master’s degree in education at the University of St. Thomas, has a sense of fulfillment knowing that he is making a difference in the lives of both children and other educators in his hometown.
“Imagine if every student felt empowered to reach higher,” he said. “As a teacher of color, I know that being a role model can make a huge difference.”
Throughout his undergraduate days, he worked a lot of jobs, many of them with children, including at the Midway YMCA in St. Paul. He wasn’t sure, however, what career path he would take. His bachelor’s degree was in psychology because “I was always interested in the way people think,” he said. “But I knew I always loved working with kids.”
He became a teaching assistant in special education classrooms in the St. Paul school district, mostly working with students with emotional behavior disorders. “It was very intense,” he said.
It was also eye-opening. “I had no idea that some of the kids I worked with at the YMCA were in this program. That was when I learned about kids with special education needs and disabilities. Is it a question of ability or of opportunity? Some of them didn’t get science [in their schooling]; it didn’t seem right.”
From his psychology training, he understood the behavioral disorders in a different light. “It goes back to their culture, their trauma or their neurology, or if they were somewhere else would [the diagnosis] have happened or if their parents were in a different wage bracket would they have been labeled with autism – race comes into it a lot. There are a lot of biases and racism in education.”
With that knowledge, Odima came up with nontraditional ways to reach these students. “I am a very creative person and the teacher gave me a lot of reign.” So he pulled out the unused iPads and experimented with different apps to engage the students. “When they were engaged, they didn’t do the behavior; they were on their iPads and learning.”
The teacher he worked with encouraged him to make teaching his profession. He applied to the collaborative educators program through St. Thomas. The Collaborative Urban and Greater Minnesota Educators of Color (CUGMEC) scholarship offers free tuition if the participant agrees to work in an urban school for three to five years. And those are just the students Odima wanted to continue to support, so it was an easy decision. He received the scholarship to St. Thomas that so far has been awarded to more than 500 teachers of color in Minnesota.
Odima has now become a teacher’s teacher – a teacher coach at the Saint Paul Public Schools Urban Teacher Residency Program, a joint project with St. Thomas.
“I try to do one-on-one coaching for teachers and give them a lot of ideas. I feel like I am a therapist – creating opportunities for others.”
Some of these opportunities he has had, he said, came about because he continued to network with his St. Thomas professors. With one of them, he has even co-written a book chapter.
He is also now adjunct faculty at St. Thomas, teaching a foundation special ed course. “I took that class when I was getting my license,” he said.
“A lot of professors I had at St. Thomas I am collaborating with. St Thomas has been the best support system.”
That’s why Martin Odima is proud to say that he is a Tommie.