by Jean-Bernard Hyppolite
You’d think that at the age of 70 and after retiring from teaching French and Spanish in a Philadelphia public school (Northeast High) for more than 30 years, East Mt. Airy resident Andrew Sellers, 70, would want nothing more than to vacation in Madrid or the French Riviera and stay as far away from a classroom as possible.
But for Sellers, teaching was always about much more than a paycheck and even much more than teaching foreign languages; it was always about leaving a lasting impression on his students, whether they were kids, teenagers or adults.
So even after he retired from public school teaching, Sellers offered to teach Spanish five years ago at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, a community-based school that offers dozens of non-credit courses on a wide variety of subjects. And after five years of teaching mostly adults at MALT, you could not pry Sellers out of the classroom with a crowbar.
“There’s such a different attitude,” explained Andrew. “The students are there because they really wish to learn, not because they have to be there, and they really do want to participate. And again it’s the same feeling that when you see somebody learn something; that expression, that smile, when they now have this jewel of knowledge. That really affects me.”
Why did Andrew decide to teach foreign languages, something that very, very few African Americans did 40 or 50 years ago? “I don’t know … I like to talk. I started studying Spanish in 1953, and I found out that the things I wanted to say had another way of saying it. I just became interested in it and developed a talent for it.”
Sellers began teaching at Northeast High School in September, 1969, and retired from the same school in 1999. “I basically taught French, and as tides turned I had to teach more Spanish. Things changed at the time because of a political situation between France and Israel … that dissuaded many people from studying French.”
(In the late 1960s relations between Israel and France were at a low point because of their governments’ widely divergent views on the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A significant percentage of Northeast High students at that time were Jewish, and apparently many opted to take courses in Spanish as their foreign language requirement instead of French.)
Throughout his time at Northeast High, Sellers of course observed dramatic changes in education. “There are so many advances in technology, which sometimes make more intense study not as much of a joy.” Sellers indicated that a lack of concentration, the “television mentality,” has become much more commonplace. “Students expect to be entertained, not taught. This is what I see basically occurring, and I suppose it will continue to occur.”
Nevertheless, Andrew Sellers simply loves to teach. He loves being able to get young minds to think. In fact, he is still an occasional substitute teacher. A source of great joy is the fact that Andrew has reacquainted himself with several former students, some from as far away as California and England, and he has discovered that they’ve had successful lives. “It’s a joy to see them, and it makes me feel good to know I’ve played a part in their lives.”
During Andrew’s early years at Northeast High School, he was one of only four or five African American teachers in the school. Andrew proudly noted, however, that there were no racial tensions to speak of, especially considering the fact that the civil rights revolution was at its height. Sellers believes that society needs to be more open regarding racial matters and not be on “constant guard, looking for offenses.” Sellers noticed that when he was in Europe, people didn’t pay as much attention to the subject of race compared to America.
Sellers was born in North Philadelphia. Because he was ill as a infant, doctors advised Sellers’ parents to move to an area where there was access to cleaner air. Thus, Andrew lived on his grandparents’ 100-acre farm in Florence, South Carolina, until the age of 6. He then moved back to Philadelphia. Sellers attributes his earliest experiences in helping him meet, understand and respect all types of people, even in the segregated south. He attended Roosevelt Junior High School and graduated from Germantown High School in 1959, immediately traveling to Europe, where he lived and studied for six years. While in Europe, Andrew observed that most Europeans were able to communicate in more than one language. He decided to emulate them, so in May of 1969, Andrew completed his B.A. in Foreign Language Education at Temple University. He was never married and has no children of his own, but many former students consider him a great father figure.
Along with teaching at Northeast High School, Andrew has also worked with the Germantown Theater Guild for years, participating in children’s theater. Through his love of puppet work, Sellers learned the value of “pulling children up to the next level.”
“The most important thing is not the subject that you teach,” said the lifelong educator. “It’s the idea that you’re teaching. It’s that you enjoy doing it because you’re imparting knowledge.”