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Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal Stories
Courtesy Toya Anderson

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal Stories

When United Teachers Los Angeles finally decided to strike during that rainy week in January, teachers stood together in solidarity for each other, for our kids and for the future. Parents, students and the public at large overwhelmingly supported their fight, and finally an agreement was reached between the union and the school district.

It's been a long time coming, but the teachers strike did more than address the lack of funding and inefficiency in our educational system; it informed us all about how the system works, how it's been threatened and why it hasn't improved. Moreover, the marches, media coverage and social media conversations helped us all learn a little more about the people who've been making it work, day in and day out, despite the challenges, reflecting the situation in a human way and providing personal perspective.

But we wanted to get even more personal, to learn how and why those who work in the LAUSD chose to do so and why they've stayed, and to hear how they approach teaching in these trying times. These are the educators helping to shape the next generation, and they're all doing it in different ways, many reflecting and perfecting what they learned as products of pubic school systems themselves. Despite what they've been through recently, these educators never lost hope that things could be better. Read their stories and you'll be inspired to believe it can be, too.

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We received so many great teacher's stories that we didn't have room for them all. This piece has additional profiles to the story in our print edition, and we will be running more of these teacher spotlights in the next few weeks online as a "Beyond the Classroom" series.

Kim Jones is a sixth-grade science teacher at Thomas Starr King Middle School.
Kim Jones is a sixth-grade science teacher at Thomas Starr King Middle School.
Montgomery Messex

Kim Jones

Sixth-grade science instructor and adviser for Thomas Starr King Middle School's Environmental STEAM Magnet for eight years. Taught for seven years at Ivanhoe Elementary School, which both her sons attended, and Glenfeliz Boulevard Elementary School before that, teaching third, fourth and fifth grades.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and got a job at the L.A. Weekly. I was a sales receptionist first, then classified ad art director, then, when Craig Lee did not want to go out on the town as much, he persuaded me to write "La Dee Dah," which I had been contributing to already.

I still dreamed of being a teacher. My father had always said that he would pay for me to go to college to be anything besides a teacher because he felt that the work was so under-compensated. My friend Hillel [Slovak, guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers] convinced me to go back to school to get my teaching certificate. Sadly, he died before I became a teacher.

I went to school in a very small town in Tennessee. There were 2,500 citizens. I graduated with the same, more or less, 56 students that were with me when we began first grade. For the most part I remember school, elementary through high school, as rote learning. I don't remember a lot of critical thinking challenges, or being asked to question. I had a seventh grade teacher, who I'm friends with on Facebook, who read aloud to us. She read us The Outsiders and then I went home and read it again. I loved reading; growing up on an isolated farm encouraged reading and exploration.

When I became a teacher at Glenfeliz, LAUSD had these wonderful science centers where teachers could take hands-on classes and get supplies, like fertile chicken eggs to hatch, hermit crabs, and models and maps to use in their classrooms. I realized that science was one of the most fun subjects to teach because of all the investigations and discoveries. Never in my life would I have thought I would be "the science teacher" but all of a sudden I was the science lead teacher. I became an LAUSD Science Fellow and now, besides my elective, Food: From Farm to Face, I teach science exclusively.

We were all nervous about what to expect during a strike. I was not a teacher in 1989 but I had talked to several teachers who were. Since then, social media has arrived and the world is quite different. We held community meetings and were pleased with the amount of support we had. One of my colleagues started a GoFundMe campaign and we bought a bunch of food so that we could make lunches for students who depend on school for that meal. The Sunday before the strike, the ESM sixth grade teachers, Mr. Laguna from FAM, a teacher from Franklin Elementary, and several students congregated at my house and made over 600 lunches. Families picked up the lunches, and Mr. Laguna and Mr. Janik delivered some to other neighborhood schools.

The strike itself was a little scary at first. I was worried there would be a lack of enthusiasm, but I was very wrong. We had so many parents, WGA members, students, community members and staff members support us at King that we became invigorated. We were lucky at our school, because we had 100 percent participation, no scabs. We played music and danced as we walked the picket line. Parents brought us coffee, food, canopies, and stood with us in the pouring rain. It was wonderful, and confirmed to me that we were doing the right thing. We met together at the larger city actions downtown and other places. We got to know one another as we walked together. I feel so proud to be a LAUSD teacher after the experience.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal Stories
Courtesy Blanca Pelayo

Blanca Pelayo

Currently in 20th year of teaching and in her sixth year at Sunrise Elementary in Boyle Heights, her former elementary school.

Growing up in Boyle Heights, I remember that my teachers instilled the value of going to college and giving back to my community. I knew I wanted to do that by becoming a teacher. I got my B.A. from CSULA and my master's at USC. Both of my parents worked and studied hard to become U.S. citizens so that all three of their children could become college graduates, from Berkeley, USC and CSULA. They believed in the quality education public school was providing their children.

I was a bilingual education student in Boyle Heights, a primarily immigrant community. In 1989, I was a student at Sunrise when my teachers went on strike. That event made me aware of the importance of standing up as teachers for your students. Then, 30 years later, as a teacher at Sunrise, I went on strike for my students, and to honor my teachers who sacrificed for me as a student.

This strike brought out the best in our school community. We felt the support from parents who brought us food, asked us questions and marched with us in the rain.

Some charter schools misled the community. Excellencia Charter, which is co-located on our campus, projected enrollment at 120. I've seen only about half that many students. Charters need to be better monitored for these discrepancies.

One of the challenges with public schools is that parents struggle to network and feel connected to opportunities and the road to college acceptance. We can overcome this struggle by empowering our parents with the knowledge, resources and support needed to positively influence their opinion about our public schools. Through the support of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which Sunrise is a part of, our parents are invited to parent college workshops.

I encourage parents to follow the example that my parents set for me. Make getting an education a priority and communicate with teachers to keep a tight connection of support as our children move through the system.

People should know that teachers value each child individually and commit in so many unstated ways to the success of each child. We multitask and individually differentiate support for each child throughout the day because we deeply care for their success. Let's make the educational system better by believing in each other as teachers, parents and students who all depend on each other to achieve academic success, to and through college.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal StoriesEXPAND
Courtesy Patrick Dore

Patrick Dore

Teaches English and music at Jack London High School, a continuation school in the San Fernando Valley, where he's been for five years. Taught at Franklin High School in Highland Park for 10 years before that.

Continuation schools are weird in that we teach every grade and class — often at the same time. It's challenging, but I love the school and I care a lot about our students. I can't say that I always dreamed of being a teacher, although I always felt that it could be a good career for me. I think that a lot of people my age saw Dead Poets Society and thought, "Hey, that would be fun!" It turns out that it's not quite like the movie but it's incredibly rewarding. I got my music degree from USC, and even built furniture and cabinets for a while before I started teaching. It's been great and I haven't regretted it for a minute, except for the first three years.

I have been in LAUSD all my life, starting at age 5 with a really strange public school called Arroyo Seco Alternative. It was basically started by a bunch of hippies, and classes included hang-gliding and Dungeons & Dragons. I loved it but it was way too weird to survive. So I went off to Marshall High School in Los Feliz, where I met some very nice people. I'm really glad that I had both experiences. The Alternative School (and probably a lot of other '70s-era schools) showed the value of creativity in the curriculum. But I also needed Marshall to learn how to write an essay. I try to bring both of those experiences to the classroom. No hang-gliding, though.

I'm very pleased that UTLA went on strike. It seems like it really brought the conversation around to some important issues, like charters and class sizes. Speaking of charters, basically it comes down to inequity. Although charter schools are sold as a great boon to minority and low-income students, these are the very students who are often left behind — along with our special education students.

Although I mainly teach English, I also teach music (outside of the classroom, I play in a band called Eye 5, kind of a rock/jazz/funk/pop thing with a great singer), which is a great way to connect with students who may be somewhat disengaged from school. I've been really proud of the musical accomplishments of my continuation students.

I think that the biggest misconception about public schools is people thinking that class size matters but not that much. Small class sizes can't make up for a poor instructor, but in general, class size trumps everything. It should be 20-to-1 maximum, 10-to-1 in tough schools, and until we face that fact, we're not taking public education seriously.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal StoriesEXPAND
Courtesy Meghan Lee

Meghan Lee

Teaches English language development 1 and 2 in the Academic Leadership Community branch of the Miguel Contreras Complex High School downtown. UTLA chapter chair for her school and a member of the UTLA House of Representatives.

I attended Fordham University in the Bronx, and as my work-study job, I tutored at a public elementary school. This was my first experience in a public school, and I was shocked to discover the disparity in resources and support offered in comparison to what I had received in parochial school.

Upon graduating in 2007, I began my career teaching in NYC public schools as a NYC Teaching Fellow, which is an alternative certification program. I was disillusioned by my principal and staff members who attempted to cover up a sexual abuse case, and I decided to try teaching at a charter school. While there was much innovation and hard work, the school was doomed to fail because of the top-down management system, led by a corrupt CEO. The CEO was eventually indicted on 11 felony counts.

Again I was disillusioned and moved to France to pursue a master's degree with NYU in French civilization. After three years I relocated to Los Angeles and got back into public school teaching.

In English language development 1, students enter the class all year long as they immigrate to the United States. I also teach Photography AB, which is a darkroom photography class where the students shoot and develop their own 35mm film prints. In my classroom, I promote critical thinking and ask the students to question the status quo. With my newcomers, we learn about the civil rights movement and Cesar Chavez and the Delano grape strike; these are topics I never learned about in school.

The UTLA strike was incredibly effective in starting a national dialogue about education and the privatization movement. A lot of people in Los Angeles were unaware that California has one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in the country, and it's important that people become informed. We are hoping to change the way California funds education by a ballot initiative in 2020 that will scale back Proposition 13's protections for commercial and industrial properties.

Our new contract has tremendous gains for students: smaller class sizes; more nurses, librarians and counselors; new community schools; more green spaces; and a temporary moratorium on charter schools for 10 months. Charter schools are not the only solution to school choice; within LAUSD there are pilot schools, magnet schools, dual-language immersion schools. My school is a teacher-powered pilot school, where the teachers make decisions about the budget and governance with the principal democratically as a team. We are innovative and offer special programs, such as a leadership development program with community partnerships.

For too long people have blamed teachers for the issues within public schools. Teachers usually get into this profession for moral reasons: We want to help people. And we suffer when we cannot provide the support that we know our students deserve.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal Stories
Courtesy Garry Joseph

Garry Joseph

In his 15th year of teaching middle school science in LAUSD, currently at Millikan Affiliated Charter Middle School in Sherman Oaks. National Board Certified teacher in early adolescent science and a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient in 2017.

Teaching is a calling that I long resisted, probably because of my own negative experiences in school. An epiphany came on a visit to the old Exploratorium in San Francisco. Watching children and adults learn by curiosity, exploration, free choice and pure joy convinced me that I had just not gotten the right kind of science instruction. I committed to being the change I wanted to see and to grind out a revolution from within the school system.

I went to a private religious school from first through 10th grade and then finished at Hamilton High School here in Los Angeles. The culture shock was extreme. Public school was a much healthier exposure to different kinds of people but it was nowhere near as academically demanding.

After graduating from UCLA, it was a relief to be free from institutions so I could learn whatever I wanted, wherever and however I wanted to. For a long time, though, I had no direction and never got the career guidance I needed. These experiences now give me empathy for my students, who are being pressured into conformity, intellectual mediocrity and standardization. There's no time to wait to discover your true passions and move toward whatever brings you satisfaction. The concept of just getting students into college is thus so short-sighted to me. We need a longer-term commitment to students as people.

The radical solutions to the education crises are pretty simple to me: Eliminate everyone who isn't a teacher and allow teachers to share more responsibilities if they have the drive and ambition to do so. Everyone in a school should be able to do whatever job is needed. Absorb the salaries of those who don't deliver the educational product (especially textbook publishers and educational researchers) and redistribute it to teachers. That would make teaching one of the highest paid and most respected positions in our culture.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal Stories
Courtesy Toya Anderson

Toya Anderson

Teaches fifth grade at Cowan Avenue Elementary in West L.A. Also has taught at 24th Street Elementary school as a fourth grade teacher, as well as Hillcrest Drive Elementary and Western Avenue Elementary.

Teaching is a second career for me. I worked in the field of public relations servicing internet and tech companies in the late '90s. When the dot-com bubble burst, I was laid off and wanted initially to work as a substitute teacher while I contemplated my next career move. The recruiter, after looking at my résumé and also my volunteer experience with Girl Scouts, encouraged me to contract with the district as a probationary teacher. After the first year, I loved the work and applied to school to get fully credentialed.

I attended Crescent Heights Boulevard Elementary School, Louis Pasteur Junior High and Alexander Hamilton High School. For me, school was the place where I began to develop as a leader and cultivate these skills. In fifth and sixth grade I began serving as an officer on student council (secretary and president, respectively). I remember when school budget cuts meant that student council would not be able to take its annual trip to Sacramento, I began to research and come up with all sorts of fundraiser ideas and other options to cut costs on the trip. I look back on that experience as a teacher and strive to provide learning experiences that allow my students to develop into leaders and find their strengths.

During the strike, I felt a sense of unity in this city that I have never felt before. It was amazing how many strangers expressed support to us as we were on the picket lines and going to various actions around the city. I think the strike was effective because it has put public education at the forefront. I don't think the average person (without school-age children) really thinks about school funding and school conditions. The strike also helped to educate the public on the efforts to privatize public education and some of the issues with charter schools.

In my experience working in schools that service students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, I have found that charters do not service all students. I have often had new students check into my class in either January or right before testing, as they were "kicked out" of charters. They've been kicked out for issues of behavior, academics, or perhaps their parents were not able to contribute. These students are often more challenging to work with, and it seems that charters just dump them back to the public school. The public isn't privy to this practice and doesn't realize that some charters may perform better because they are in essence selecting their students and weeding out the others.

I think people still think public education is like the one-room schoolhouse with Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, with all the students intensely focused and ready to learn. Students come to school tired because they were awakened by a police raid at their apartment building in the middle of the night; stressed because of domestic violence in the home; angry because a parent just got arrested. The public doesn't seem to understand that as teachers we are caring for the whole child, and that is a far greater task that can't be measured or evaluated by a standardized test.

As for overcoming these challenges, it would be great if every public official who creates, votes or speaks on education policy would be required to teach in the most challenging school for a year before taking public office. Teaching is definitely one of these professions where you don't realize how hard it is until you do it.

Beyond the Classroom: L.A. Teachers Share Their Personal StoriesEXPAND
Courtesy Maria Arienza

Maria Arienza

Teaches Spanish for Spanish speakers and AP English Language and Composition (11th grade) at North Hollywood High School. Began her career in LAUSD in 2008, starting as a bilingual assistant in grades 7-12 for four years. This is her seventh year as a teacher. All her education — B.A., two M.A.s and a doctorate — is from CSUN. She is an immigrant and was once an English language learner.

I became a teacher because enough people told me I never would. My university supervisors during my student teaching assignment told me I don’t belong in this field. I’m too “different.” I don’t “fit in.” During my bilingual assistant days, I had an administrator tell me that I would be a “career T.A.,” meaning I'd never be a teacher. I became a teacher to prove them all wrong. Along the way, I found my voice and established my teacher identity. Now I fight for my kids and their rights. I am their advocate. I am their voice.

Over the years, my professional goals changed. I started as a classroom teacher. Now, I’m still a classroom teacher ... who makes waves and flips departments upside down to fight for change, making sure that every student has access and opportunity to quality in instruction.

I went to Van Nuys High School's performing arts magnet and it was probably one of the best schools I have attended. I am influenced by it to this day. I still sing. I still dance (was dancing on the picket line). My lesson plans give students options to do projects that incorporate music, theater, dance. I come from a family where education wasn’t valued, yet I have a doctorate degree. My teachers at VNHS made it happen for me. They breathed in enough love and support for me to make it this far. I give back to Van Nuys HS now. I have taught two summer sessions there and will do so again.

The strike was an incredible experience. I never though I would strike. My largest class hit 49 students last semester. That’s unacceptable. Charters? Very strong feelings. I strongly oppose. I worked at an independent startup charter — thankfully for only five weeks — years ago. Never again. I saw enough corruption to never go down that path again. They co-locate, taking away our students’ opportunities. They drain funding and resources. They threaten and intimidate teachers. They are a disgrace to the teaching profession.

The biggest misconception I see in public schools is the question of the union, in this case UTLA. Many people who praise charters think that public schools are bad and that they’re failing because of “those teachers” that the union protects. The truth is: The union works like checks and balances. It’s due process and that’s about it. An admin can check on a “bad” teacher and with proper documentation (and patience and time), the teacher can and will be dismissed. Likewise, a teacher can check on a “bad” admin by filing a grievance — a right granted by the union. Privatizers like those that run charters are trying to miseducate and mislead the public to believe that unions are evil beings that destroy schools, so therefore, we need the magic word: reform. And reform means charter and charter usually means no union, which means teachers have no voice. In a career like teaching, you need a voice. You have to have it and it needs protection.

Teaching is not easy. People think it’s a simple “job.” It’s not a job. It’s a career that requires talent and dedication. Real teachers develop their craft their entire career. They take risks. They demonstrate courage. They speak up and stand up for what’s right. They question authority. They fight for change. It’s not “I’ll just teach for five years to get loan forgiveness.” It’s not “I’ll just do Teach for America.” It’s not “how hard can it be and you get benefits and retirement packages...” It’s this: “This is someone’s future. This is my opportunity to make a difference. This is real life.”

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