Jaime Escalante, Non-Conformist And Craftsman

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Good teachers are one of a kind. Teachers like my old Government teacher Marvin Katz and English teacher Eugene Friedman from my days at Monroe High School. Good teachers who individually configured their own nuanced approach to teaching courses in a way that wasn't just going through the motions. What I have always found to be true is that students -- even the students that don't try -- definitely know the difference between a good teacher who is trying to inspire them and a teacher that is just phoning it in and watching the clock with them.

When I started teaching 24 years ago, I initially thought this is going to be easy after the first year. I'll just get the lessons together in Government, U.S and World History and after that it will be easier to deal with the mountain of work in addition to classroom time that any good teacher must spend in reading and grading what students are writing. For me, it was never an option to have a file drawer filled with an endless supply of class and homework lessons that I could continue to recycle year after year, because the dynamic nature of good education showed me in the clearest possible terms that both the students and the subject matter of each of these courses were not written in stone but rather were constantly being changed by interaction with contemporary reality. Only giving multiple choice Scantron exams, while necessary at times when you are teaching over 200 students in a semester, does not give you enough student feedback to stay at the top of your game as a teacher, whose success is determined by seeing each and everyone of your students as individuals.

Another key specific factor that must be added to what we try to talk about here at perdaily is the environment that the average teacher is presently forced to function in. It is not realistic to expect the average teacher to have the ganas that an Escalante had in continuing to keep it real while receiving little support and often recriminations from many of his assembly line mentality colleagues -- to whom he was an embarrassment. To a very real extent, Escalante's success with a population of students that they had written off made them look bad.

Because this underlying culture of mediocrity and entropy, which is still alive and well in the ranks of most LAUSD administrators and teachers, it is no surprise that "by September 2008, the school that was once hailed internationally for producing mathematics scholars was subject to a takeover because of "persistent academic failure." Unbelievably, only 5 percent of Garfield's math students tested as 'proficient.'"

Escalante would also not be surprised that, "Tragically, the Los Angeles Unified School District didn't learn anything." Today he would have charges brought against him for calling his students asses and would be put in a position of having to answer charges of bullying and making racist remarks. He was an independent thinker, and bureaucracies are threatened by originality. Our education system cannot expect the vast majority of teachers to do the difficult job they are asked to do year after year, while being assaulted by their administrators. I used to say to my seniors at Palisades Charter High School as they started champing at the bit around April or May, "Be nice, you guys get out of here in June, while I have to come back in September and do it all over again, while making it fresh and vital." That in and of itself takes a discipline required of few other professions, all of which get more respect than teachers.

What I find more alarming than LAUSD's administration understandably pushing status quo, is the belief by virtually all the fellow teachers that I talk with that educating our predominantly minority students at LAUSD is not realistic, when nothing could be further than the truth. They feel bolstered in this belief by pointing out that Garfield High School after Escalante has "slide back into the abyss of academic failure." In discussing this phenomenon last week with New York based fellow blogger and education activist Joel Shatzky, Joel's take was expressed by asking the question: Who presently goes into teaching? He shares my view that for the most part, it is people who are not risk takers and are predisposed not to question the conformity to mediocrity that continues to hobble real public education reform. In my teacher credentialing class at CSULA, I was the only teacher candidate who came from a family whose parents had also gone to college. While this is not a crime, since "we all couldn't make it on the first boat" as humorist and American philosopher Will Rogers used to say, a cadre of teachers that is more concerned with their compensation and getting into the middle class than their work has two strikes against it when they step up to the plate as a teacher for LAUSD.

Education reform doesn't work if the teacher and student parts used to fabricate it are passed on even though they are substandard. While people from organizations like Teach for America will go into teaching for a few years to flesh out their resumes when they get out of college, they will not stay because of the financial benefit that gives a first year law associate in a prestigious law firm $125,000 a year to start, while only giving a starting teacher $40,000 a year or less and a top salaried teacher less than $80,000 -- sadly, you get what you pay for.

Without making teaching a respected profession that our best and brightest are willing to go into and stay for the long run, LAUSD and other large failing school district throughout this country will not be held accountable for the generations of not addressing and rectifying its failure in a manner that can be verified by results. How can you expect the teacher who once said to me, "Lenny... you really don't mind writing?" to go ahead and teach English with any passion or rigor.

"Jaime Escalante was a difficult man - a prima donna whose celebrity manufactured envy, jealousy and resentment. He wouldn't compromise and clashed with the political zeitgeist of most of his peers." While he was not alone in his uncompromising demand for educational excellence, a more teacher-friendly atmosphere within LAUSD could significantly raise the number of competent and inspiring teachers making student success more of a sure thing in the future. Presently, there is a guy named Rafe Esquith at Hobart Elementary School who has written a book about public education and teaches for LAUSD. His class, which is in a lower socio-economic area in Korea Town, is open to visitors. His students get there very early and stay until 6PM. He has them doing Shakespeare and is support by many famous actors. Like Jaime Escalante, I am sure that he too is an embarrassment to his less than motivated colleagues.

We have come to the point in public education at LAUSD where trying to apprise students of the consequences for being tardy, truant, and disruptive, while doing no class or homework does not get you praise, but rather a Notice of Unsatisfactory Act for "bullying" and "making racist remarks" against your students. The fact that some of the consequences for the aforementioned improper behavior can be measured in greater levels of incarceration, more health issue for preventable conditions like Type 2 diabetes, and a life span that is significantly less that these students White or Asian counterparts is not politically correct to mention and will be met by LAUSD with charges and your ultimate dismissal if you persist in trying to fulfill your mandate as an educator of young adults.

I still would like to believe that any teacher who fails to try for their students -- in lieu of just collecting a pay check and not rocking the sinking LAUSD boat -- must nonetheless have major issues of guilt. This guilt is based on their compromised ideals, the same ideals that hopefully got them into teaching to begin with. At the very least, it does explain why 50% of teachers get out of the classroom or teaching altogether within 5 years. How much does it cost to replace half your total teaching force ever 5 years... and what is the quality of those who stay?

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