New York

Friends and colleagues remember Terence "T" Tolbert, 44

Terence Tolbert with Mayor Bloomberg (via Facebook)
Terence Tolbert with Mayor Bloomberg (via Facebook)

Thoughts are falling many places this Election Day, and one place, especially among those who work at the Department of Education, is the life of Terence Tolbert, the DOE’s chief lobbyist who died Sunday night at age 44 while on a leave of absence to run Barack Obama’s campaign in Nevada.

Tolbert, by all accounts a tireless worker, was responsible for spearheading many of the DOE’s biggest projects, including the effort to raise the cap that kept the number of charter schools allowed in New York at 100 and the settlement of the historic Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. He also was a reliable public face for the Bloomberg administration around the city, chairing hearings often attended by unhappy parents, and one of just a small number of African-Americans among the DOE’s top leadership.

So strong was his commitment to his work for the Bloomberg administration that a friend, Larry Blackmon, told me that in his final days campaigning for Obama, Tolbert was already starting to look forward to his next fight, on behalf of renewing the law that gives control of the public schools to the mayor. “He made it a point to me to tell me that the day after it was over he was packing up and he was driving back,” Blackmon said. “He was really looking forward to coming back home.”

But on Tolbert’s Facebook page, in our comments section, and in conversations I had with his friends this week, the overwhelming impression is less of a political operative than of a man who was a mentor and inspiration to many; a man who made many friends, despite a stubborn insistence on always telling things exactly as he saw them; and a man whose primary commitment was to public service.

Tolbert’s friends told me that his work at the DOE was the culmination of a life spent collecting political experiences, all with an eye toward returning to serve his community in the most powerful, productive form possible. A product of the St. Nicholas housing project in Harlem, Tolbert graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, where he was active in student government.

A friend from high school, Ben Austin, recalled a charismatic pitch Tolbert delivered when he asked to be elected to something called the principal’s advisory board. Standing on a podium, Tolbert introduced himself in verse, Austin recalled:

My name is Terence,
But you can call me T.
It’s easier for you
And it’s easier for me.

“He brought the house down and established himself as a great orator, even then,” Austin said.

Terence Tolbert in glasses, with Larry Blackmon (far left), Basil Smickle (left of Terence) and other friends. (Via Facebook)
Terence Tolbert in glasses, with Larry Blackmon (far left), Basil Smickle (left of Terence) and other friends. (Via Facebook)

Tolbert cut his political teeth as an aide to Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem, where he rose to become chief of staff. (Tolbert told the Times he saw their relationship as a kind of Batman and Robin act.) During that time, he developed a close network of friends, mostly other black men involved in politics, who supported and advised each other. “The key was to be able to talk a lot about and think about how we really make a difference in different levels of government: get the experience, get the exposure, and then be able to come back and support the community that we love,” a longtime friend of Tolbert’s, political consultant Basil Smikle, told me.

Smikle said Tolbert’s work at the DOE constituted his arrival at the end of the process, the part where the men “come back and support the community.” He said Tolbert would talk about his work in education constantly, at dinners and “off the clock.” Tolbert saw his work at DOE as a “mission,” Smikle said. Blackmon called it “a labor of love.”

Smikle added:

Talking to him about education, he was so passionate and adamant. He was passionate about a lot of things, but he was so passionate about his work there, because he really, really did believe that he was fighting for kids and on the side of children and parents. I really, really think that he felt very humbled by the ability to make whatever gains he could make through his efforts to help kids.

It was one of those things where I know he’s been passionate about many things in his life, but if you ever heard him talk about education, you’d be a believer in a minute.

Tolbert could be stubborn about his passions. “I always said that Terence was: it was hard to love him and easy to love him at the same time,” Blackmon said. The hard part, he said, was Tolbert’s honesty. “Terence would speak his mind and he wouldn’t hold back; it didn’t matter if it infuriated you. He was just not going to do what people wanted him to do, he wasn’t going to subscribe to conventional wisdom,” Blackmon said.

Tolbert’s loyalty was not just to his own convictions but to his friends. A deacon for the Episcopal Church, Tolbert presided over the weddings of several friends and never forgot to send birthday messages, friends said.

His mentoring of young people — which Smikle said was a deliberate choice he made, for the sake of strong political leadership — is already legendary. “He was very good about telling people, if you need a job, I’ll put you somewhere, so that you can learn and get the exposure,” Smikle said. “He was extraordinary about that. That is something that I think will be his legacy.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”