Albert Lewis sounded like a basketball coach cheering on his team before the big game.
“We are!” Lewis shouted.
“All in!” the youngsters yelled back in unison.
“We are!” he said.
“All in!” they repeated.
But this isn’t a locker room.
It is an eighth-grade language arts classroom at Walker Mill Middle School in Capitol Heights. And this is how Lewis, the Prince George’s County Teacher of the Year, greets his students before he dives into the day’s lesson plan.
Lewis, 30, who began his career as a substitute teacher in 2006, was chosen as the county’s top teacher from a pool of 39 nominees earlier this month. He will represent Prince George’s in the fall for the Maryland Teacher of the Award.
Nicole S. Clifton, Walker Mill’s principal, said Lewis has a developed a rapport with the students that is almost unparalleled.
“He’s one of the best in our school in terms of student engagement,” she said. “He is really gifted to be so young. . . . He has mastered what it takes some teachers years to do.”
Lewis, who arrives to school impeccably dressed each day, considers himself an “old-school young person” who brings a traditional set of values to his classroom, values he learned from his single-parent mother: Hard work pays off. Give respect to get respect.
Paul Edwards, 15, of Capitol Heights, said Lewis has become one of his favorite teachers because he makes schoolwork “fun and easy to understand.”
As class begins, Lewis’s students are placed into small groups to discuss writing a summary of Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitch-Hiker.” Lewis makes his way around the room and takes a seat in one of the small blue chairs.
“What are the five W’s?” he asks.
“Who,” one student says. “What,” another answers. Then they begin answering each question to pull together a series of sentence summaries.
Two years ago, the eighth-graders voted Lewis the “strictest” teacher. This year, he took top honors as “most popular.”
“To see the shift, I think it’s funny,” Lewis said. “I guess I’m strict and cool.”
Edwards said Lewis has encouraged him to be committed to whatever he does. Edwards said he likes to play the drums, and thanks to Lewis’s “all in” motto, he now plays the drums at a church.
“When he asks for respect, you have to give it to him because he gives it back,” Edwards said.
Lewis, who coaches the debate team and serves as a team leader and administrative support, said he can identify with many of his students, who also come from single-parent households.
He grew up in Capitol Heights, and he teaches at the same school where he learned as a teenager.
“I feel like with this profession you don’t have a choice but to be a role model and to exemplify something positive that they can look up to,” said Lewis, one of 981 black male teachers in Prince George’s, where black males make up about 11 percent of the teaching staff. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s teachers are African American males. “They have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but they need someone who is in their face every day. They can see, ‘This person is from Capitol Heights just like me. This person went to college and graduated. This person is getting another degree. I can be like Mr. Lewis.’ ”
As a kid, Lewis wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. After failed attempts to make his high school basketball team, he said he knew the NBA was out of the question. He thought hard about what he wanted to do for a living.
“So I said I still want to be around sports — I can cover it,” he said.
He went on to study broadcast journalism at Morgan State University, where he was editor of his college paper. He later landed an internship at Fox 45 in Baltimore.
But like someone who serves in the ministry, Lewis said he was “called” by God to education.
“I really was speechless,” said Rita Lewis, his mother, remembering when Lewis told her about his decision. “I know how underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated teachers are. . . . I was just kind of looking at him.”
But Rita Lewis said she couldn’t be prouder of her son and his accomplishments.
“I’m just ecstatic for him,” said Nathaniel Laney, the principal at Forestville High School and Lewis’s eighth-grade history teacher. “I’ve been bragging about him around here like he’s a superstar. I remember him as a student. He was a good student, but he would get angry and frustrated when he couldn’t get things right. . . . He’s always been a leader type, out front trying to establish the proper ways to do things. He wanted it right. Obviously, he’s gotten it right.”