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CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Don Wilkins’ secret to coaching students on the basketball court is the same as what he uses to train teachers in the classroom: it’s all about “leading with love.”
Wilkins is the Residency and Induction Coach at Propel, a charter school system comprised of 13 schools throughout Pittsburgh, and a head basketball coach at one of Propel’s three local high schools.
Originally from Chicago, Wilkins received his Master of Arts in teaching degree from National Louis University and taught for years in the Chicago and Atlanta school systems before moving to Pittsburgh two years ago. He says it was Propel’s residency program that brought him to the Steel City.
Wilkins is responsible for recruiting, training, and retaining Propel’s teachers in the Residency and Induction programs, working with the educators on goals like professional development and building leadership.
“We get to give them the best practices from the gate and really, really hit home with love,” says Wilkins, who currently coaches 13 residents and anywhere from 50-100 teachers in Propel’s induction program.
Wilkins said his greatest accomplishment so far has been seeing the past year’s residents “thriving” in their classrooms but says he misses being able to walk the halls and see the students in person since COVID-19 has made classes virtual.
“I could go on and on about the things that I learned from teachers, but mainly I learned about making sure that students' experiences are one of value,” says Wilkins. “That is at the forefront of all of our decision-making.”
But he does still get to work with some students in person. In addition to working with teachers, for the second year since arriving in Pittsburgh, Wilkins is also the head coach of Propel’s Andrew Street varsity boys’ basketball team.
“I really saw a need for the boys that I coach that they hadn’t experienced love, and I just wanted to be a vessel for that, so being able to be around the kids and talk to them about forgiveness and just trying to work at a common goal and not giving up on students, not giving up on their team and [encouraging students not to] give up on themselves,” says Wilkins. “I enjoy just being able to just fellowship with the young men and love on them and let them experience love.”
Wilkins, a single father of four, also heads a ministry group and is a student himself, currently studying for his doctorate at Point Park University. “I wanted to have a broader influence and be able to do research around the work that I'm doing now in terms of residency, in terms of Black male educators.”
So how does he juggle a full-time job, coaching, being a father, heading a ministry, and going to school? “Lots of prayer,” he says with a laugh.
“It's really not about me,” he says. “It's really not. This is about serving and being a servant leader. And it’s really living and walking that out. And just not talking about it, but doing it.”