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Port Chester educator makes unique return to the classroom
Teacher, coach, now trustee: Tom Corbia keeps connecting with kids
'When they know that you care about them, they never, never forget you'
Like anyone who has given decades to a profession, Tom Corbia has earned the right to take things easy, to relax a bit. Four decades teaching and coaching youth sports in Port Chester certainly qualifies.
Instead, Corbia is still coaching - modified girls soccer and varsity softball - mentoring young coaches, and teaching part-time.
Oh, and he was elected to the Port Chester school board in May.
The coaching part comes easy these days, and the school board is an extension of his community volunteer spirit. Teaching, though? Let’s just say he didn’t pick the easiest path back to the classroom.
Corbia is teaching High School Equivalency classes at the Westchester County jail. Southern Westchester BOCES’ Center for Adult and Community Services runs the Sprain Brook Academy there in partnership with the Department of Corrections. The job fits with his belief that every person deserves a chance.
“I’m a risk taker,” Corbia said recently. “The worst thing that could happen is I don’t like it, and what’s wrong with that?”
Turns out he loves it, though. He saw the job as an opportunity to help students like some he knew in his teaching career, those who lacked advantages in life or who made bad decisions that risked derailing their education.
“I always like the opportunity to give to someone who didn’t have a silver spoon in their mouth,” he says.
Port Chester sits among wealthier communities. (His mom’s family is from the village, but he was raised in Mamaroneck, an important distinction, he notes.) In neighboring areas, a student might get by with a lesser teacher. Corbia felt his students needed and deserved more from him.
“That’s what makes Port Chester so special,” he said. “And I found that the students, when they know that you care about them, they never, never forget you.”
Kevin McAllister, a counselor in the program, said Corbia started with a handful of students and is up to 20 now. Having someone of his caliber on staff is a big deal.
“That’s a tough world to come into,” McAllister said. “I was impressed with that.”
One challenge has been adjusting to the lack of structure. His students aren’t compelled to attend his classes. Sometimes they’re transferred or released.
Still, he finds the work rewarding. “Now all my friends are saying, ‘You look happy,’” he says. “And I talk about it at dinners and at functions. I’m blessed, really, to think that I could make a connection with someone who could make a connection with school.”
On a typical day, Corbia will arrive at 7:30 a.m. and check in with the full-time staff before going to his classroom. He teaches women in the morning, men in the afternoon. They call him Coach. He keeps a folder for each one’s work and encourages collaboration among his students.
He works to develop a level of trust with them too. They’ll open up to him, have debates. Many of them don’t understand stress, he says, nor how to manage it.
He tries to teach them to think logically and sequentially rather than simply to react to situations. Outside of an emergency, you can always wait to make a decision. That’s a skill anyone can learn.
He applies it to coaching too. He’ll walk past a player after a miscue and ask, how did that work out for you? And he’ll leave them to sort it out. Next time, maybe, they’ll think first.
Recently, a group of women in his morning class asked him what he thought of them. It was a pointed question, one he knew he couldn't duck and still maintain the trust he'd managed to establish. So he thought hard, searched for the right answer. “I said, ‘You want to know what I know about you? You’re no different than anybody on the outside,’” he told them. His honesty made an impact. “Two of them were crying," he said.
How long will he keep working like this? Moments like that explain why has no end date in mind.
“That’s why I don’t have any trouble getting up to go to work,” Corbia said. “Watching Scooby Doo re-runs is not my way to retire.”