Alexander City Middle School physical education teacher and cheerleading coach Thomas Leonard was recently nominated for a National LifeChanger of the Year award for 2019-20.
The award is given to teachers “who are making a difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership,” according to a press release. Seventeen nominated teachers will be chosen for the awards.
Leonard said he’s “on cloud nine” after being nominated. He was nominated by his cousin Desmond Leonard, who graduated from Benjamin Russell this year.
Leonard has taught at Alexander City Middle School for seven years.
An Alexander City native, Leonard graduated from Benjamin Russell in 2004. He was the first African-American male cheerleader and first male cheer captain at Benjamin Russell.
“My first love was baseball but for some reason I always wanted to be able to do backhand springs, somersaults and all that,” Leonard said. “So I ended up teaching myself. It led me to where I am today.”
Leonard said he felt like he was making a difference in cheerleading and decided to become a physical education teacher. Leonard received a cheerleading scholarship to Alabama State University and graduated with a degree in physical education.
Leonard taught at Childersburg High School and Coosa Middle School before starting at Alexander City Middle School.
“Everybody has a burning fire for a goal inside of them but you have to be careful because you can run into fire extinguishers, haters and whatnot,” Leonard said. “My thing is teaching (students) that there’s always more to life than what you are introduced to.”
Leonard’s office is decorated with pictures and stories cut out from newspapers of former students he’s affected. Leonard said at first he wanted to collect the pictures then give them to students after they graduated from Benjamin Russell.
“The photos that I have in my office are of some of the kids who I felt like I made an impact on,” Leonard said. “Some of them they won’t tell you. They’re not going to give me that credit but I can see it because some of the things that I say I hear them saying it.”
Leonard said he tries to show students there is a life outside their surroundings.
Leonard has taken students into his home and fed them. Leonard said all teachers need to realize they are still educators outside the classroom, so he makes sure to take care of students when they need him.
“A lot of people don’t know that and I don’t really care to share but the fact of knowing that I’m a life changer and there are some (people) I know if it had not been for me that they wouldn’t have decided to go to college,” Leonard said. “They wouldn’t have decided to go into the military. Some of them wouldn’t even decide to even go to work.”
Leonard said his favorite part of education is watching students finding their gifts and using them.
“(Not everybody) is going to be a rapper,” Leonard said. “(Not everybody) is going to be a pro athlete but if you look within yourself everybody has a gift.”
Outside of teaching, Leonard plays music at Perfect Peace Missionary Baptist Church and coaches his daughter’s little league softball team.
According to the press release, winners will be announced with a surprise award ceremony at their schools.