Comfort Agboola

Photo of Comfort Agboola, English and math teachers at Poe Classical Elementary School.

Poe Classical Elementary teacher Comfort Agboola was in shock when, at a school assembly, she learned she had been chosen to receive the Milken Educator Award, a prestigious national honor, hailed as the Oscars of the education world. 

“I really couldn’t believe it,” she said. “To tell the truth, I’m still in shock but also so proud to be recognized by a community of educators.”

At the award ceremony, Illinois State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders applauded Agboola, saying she “makes magic in the classroom. From reading to math, she brings learning to life. She helps her students discover hidden talents and unlocks their capacity for excellence.”

Empowering students

Agboola believes her most important role as an educator is to give students the tools to empower themselves because, as one of her education professors always said, “then, no one can take that power away.”

Born and raised in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, the daughter of a 30-year veteran CPS educator, Agboola saw the impact her mother had on young people and was determined to make the same kind of impact on the youth in her south side community.  

“I watched how my mother interacted with her students, how much they respected her but also how they felt respected, too, and how she was able to build powerful connections with them,” she said. “There are a lot of amazing professions but not very many where you can impact kids and how they view the world around them.”

Mother passes baton

When her mother retired after 30 years, in 2012, she “passed the baton” on to her daughter, who began teaching at a Catholic school. After three years, she moved to CPS, teaching first at STEM Magnet Academy before moving to her current school in Pullman, in 2020. At Poe, she teaches middle school English and math.

As a shy and somewhat reserved child, Agboola said she always loved reading and writing. In fact, she won a writing award in high school that helped pay part of her college tuition. She feels lucky to have had educators who nurtured and supported her talents through grade school and beyond.

Now, she strives to nurture her students’ talents by teaching a project-based curriculum she hopes will kindle the love of learning in her students. She hopes to empower students to explore their own personal stories in fiction, essays and spoken word “open mics.” She also provides opportunities outside the classroom such as podcasting and debate clubs.

Once Agboola began working in CPS, she couldn’t help but notice the difference compared to the private school system in which she began her career. In CPS schools, she said, teachers have a greater voice, thanks to the CTU.

“We” not “me”

“We’re lucky we have a union that supports us, not just in having a voice but also using our voice,” she said. “It’s more about the ‘we’ instead of the ‘me.’”

Agboola said she first felt the power of the union during the 2019 CTU strike.

“I knew having a union was powerful but the first time I felt collective power, as a CTU member, was during the strike, when we were standing up not just for educators but for our students and their families alike,” she said. 

And, Agboola said she appreciates the community of educators in the CTU who help and support each other. To do her part, last year, she signed on as a We Care instructional coach, mentoring new teachers. 

Teachers need support

“I remember my first year. I had great colleagues but not a mentor and it would have been great to have that sounding board, someone to run ideas by or to help me find resources,” she said. 

This year, she is paired up with a first-year educator who started out as a long-term guest teacher. In their first session, she helped him map out goals and the layout of his classroom. She has given advice on assessments, lessons plans and discipline strategies. She even responded once during the day when he needed help with a problem. 

Agboola notes that coaching is a reciprocal process — she reaps rewards from the relationship, too. For example, she said, it is helpful to connect with a teacher who just finished education coursework and might be able to share new information or different ways of looking at issues. 

“The bottom line is, it’s so important that every student in every part of the city has a teacher who feels supported,” she said. 

Working in Pullman, not far from where she grew up, Agboola is keenly aware of the inequities wrought by disinvestment. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to work in the community.

Listen to educators

“We need to start thinking of the city as a whole,” she said. “Schools should not be forced to fight over funding. All schools should get what they need to support their learners and their families.”

If she could snap her fingers and make one change in CPS, she said it would be for the district to listen to its educators. 

“It sounds simple but it doesn’t happen enough,” she said. ”It would help resolve a lot of problems if the people in charge would just listen to the people doing the work every day, the people who are loving and caring for the children of this city.”  

With a fellow teacher in charge of the district, she just may get her wish.