Kindergarten Marine

Atlantic City teacher Alphonso Harrell leads by example

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Growing up in Philadelphia, Alphonso “Al” Harrell attended rigorous parochial schools staffed by demanding nuns and Jesuit priests, thus beginning a lifelong relationship with authority, self-discipline and high expectations.  

“Growing up, I loved school,” Harrell says. “I was a top student, and I thrived under that structure. I learned to adapt and keep moving, no matter what was expected of me.”  

A left-handed writer, he was strongly encouraged to write with his right hand, an experience that he recounts as another example of his ability to adjust and meet whatever was required of him.  

After graduating from high school in 1981, Harrell joined the United States Marine Corps, a move motivated by his desire to join the “toughest branch of the military,” according to Harrell, and finance his continued academic career.  

Following basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, a notoriously difficult regimen, and training as a radio operator at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Harrell trained as an air traffic controller. For the next 12 years, Harrell would travel to more than 35 countries including Zimbabwe, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and many more. But for his family back in Philadelphia, most of his life was a mystery.  

“I couldn’t tell them everything I was doing, or sometimes even where I was,” Harrell remembers. “I could just tell them I was OK, and everything was fine.”  

Harrell left the Marine Corps after an injury and began working as a corrections officer in Atlantic County, New Jersey. On his days off, he worked as a substitute teacher, which led Harrell to a realization. 

“Substitute teaching opened my eyes to a career in education,” Harrell says. “I was going to college for criminal justice and pre-law at Temple University, and I finished my degree at Rowan University. When a long-term substitute position opened up at Pleasantville’s South Main Street School in 1994, I knew I’d found my calling.”  

Harrell took a permanent position as a student relations assistant at the school and helped out with security and discipline problems. He went on to earn master’s degrees in early childhood education and educational leadership. Eventually, he became the security director for the entire Pleasantville School District, hiring staff, conducting training and installing security systems. But the call of a classroom of his own brought him back.  

In 2010, Harrell was hired to teach pre-kindergarten in Atlantic City.  

“I loved it,” Harrell says. “The kids loved it, the parents loved it. They requested me year to year.”  

After seven years, Harrell was moved to kindergarten, where he is today.  

Harrell served in the Marines for 12 years before embarking on his career in education.

Ductus Exemplo – Leading by Example 

As an educator, Harrell always has drawn heavily on his experiences as a Marine.  

“One of the things that benefited me in the Marine Corps was the emphasis on leadership,” Harrell says. “In my classroom, we are building leaders. I’m there to nurture and guide them, but the emphasis is on learning what you need to do and doing it.” 

Harrell believes in letting the students run the classroom on their own so they see they can do it. Seeing this philosophy in action affirms the students’ abilities, even at a young age, to manage themselves.  

“It still looks like a typical kindergarten classroom,” Harrell says. “We use timers, songs and organizational structures like folders and charts. But if a student needs to use the restroom attached to our classroom, they know they can do that. If they need to grab a pencil or scissors, they can do that. The classroom is their community. They are the leaders in the classroom, and I am there to guide them along. 

“You build them up. Our motto is: we always try our best. And when you build them up, they will do their best,” Harrell says. 

Harrell calls his teaching style a “firm, military style” that heavily emphasizes structure and uses cadence calls and marching to songs, which the students love.  

“It’s not yelling at them,” Harrell emphasizes. “This is kindergarten. You have to be nurturing. But children feel most secure when they know what to expect.”  

Harrell believes that 90% of success in education is classroom management, at every age level.  

“I think that teachers need to show their passion for the material and love and care for their students,” Harrell says. “But you need a firm tone. Everyone succeeds when everyone has a chance to learn, and learning can’t happen without strong classroom management.”  

Harrell takes his role as one of his students’ first teachers very seriously.  

“Kindergarten is very important in their formative years,” Harrell says. “We get them on track with reading, writing, learning their letter sounds, and what the expectations are for how they will behave and treat each other, and be treated in return.” 

Harrell works to instill confidence and leadership skills in his students, while meeting their needs as kindergarteners

 The few, the proud 

In addition to being former military, Harrell knows that it’s rare for students to have a male teacher in early elementary, and even more rare for that teacher to be a man of color.  

“I know there are not a lot of men in early childhood education,” Harrell said. “Students need to see a father figure, someone who looks like them and who can relate to them.”  

Harrell is often called “Dad” accidentally by his students. As a father and grandfather, he understands. While he nurtures his students, he doesn’t baby them. He shows that he has high expectations for them—and that he is proud of them when they meet those expectations.  

“Being a man, it’s important that we show them that we love them just as much as their other teachers do,” Harrell says. “It’s so powerful for students to see a man in their school showing kindness and being nurturing. It shows them all the different parts of being a man—and being human.”  

Harrell strongly believes that more male teachers are needed in the early elementary grades. He is an acknowledged leader in the school, not only thanks to his years in education, but also due to his active involvement in the union.  

“People look to me as a leader,” Harrell says. “I share my ideas and strategies with my team, and we balance out how our classes are run. I like to be knowledgeable and informed when people come to me with questions.”  Harrell holds, or has held, many positions in his local, county and statewide unions. Currently, Harrell is a member of the NJEA Editorial, Constitutional Review, and Human and Civil Rights committees. He is a member of NJEA’s Patriots Alliance, a coalition of educators who are military retirees, veterans, JROTC instructors, reservists, and New Jersey National Guard members. He also is very engaged in NJEA’s Members of Color Network, which seeks to connect and engage with an underrepresented group. At the local level, Harrell is currently the Atlantic City Education Association membership chair, and he has previously served on other executive board positions and on negotiations.  

Harrell brings all his experience in the military and education to benefit his students.

Semper Fidelis – Always Faithful 

Harrell draws on his military experience in all areas of his life and you can often find him wearing his U.S. Marine Corps hat to union meetings.   

“I think the military benefited me because it allowed me to travel to various countries and learn about other cultures,” he says. “Being an educator, you have to accept everyone for who they are and where they come from. Particularly in New Jersey’s public schools, we are educating a cross-section of the world. Once you’ve been exposed to the way that other people live, work, speak and survive, you really just see people as human beings. Whatever differences there might be are inconsequential.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to She can be reached at

Members of Color Network  

In 2019, NJEA established the Members of Color (MOC) Network as an intentional organizing effort to connect and engage with an underrepresented affinity group within the association. 

The network’s goal is to elevate the advocacy, engagement and ownership that all members have in their union. Through targeted conversations and continual advocacy and educational opportunities, MOC will build a stronger NJEA that reflects its rich diversity of membership. 

Learn more about the MOC Network