We received so many great teacher stories when we ran the cover feature “Beyond the Classroom” earlier this month that we didn't have room for them all in print. Here is the first of an ongoing series spotlighting L.A.'s dedicated educators, sharing their experiences, perspectives and a little bit of their lives with L.A. Weekly readers.
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 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 Angelenos 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 the public school system themselves. Despite what they went through in January, and the struggles of their profession in general, they never lost hope that things could be better. Read their stories and you'll be inspired to believe it can be, too.
Canoga Park High School
I have been an LAUSD teacher for 19 years, starting at the elementary level (one year), middle school (16 years) and at the high school level for ? years so far. I am currently teaching teaching magnet 11th grade U.S. History, magnet Honors 11th U.S. History, magnet 12th grade economics/government and elective ethnic studies/Chicano studies. I also teach Chicana/o studies at L.A. Pierce College (four years) and East L.A. College 15 years as a part-time instructor.
My main concerns in my LAUSD teaching career have been the continuous changes in instructional material, the district's testing that's been overwhelming, and definitely the shortage in supervision throughout the campuses. Resources continue to be cut, and I learned that my own children's elementary school nurse is only there once a week. I didn’t know this until the strike. It is appalling that the district doesn’t provide the basics. What concerns me is the future of LAUSD with the current superintendent and some of the school board members who have proven to be against public education success.
As a student in LAUSD myself, I remember a lot of my teachers and the education I received was great. I remember we had tons of electives, wood shop, metal shop, art, cooking, etc. These were some of the best experiences. I did like the academics, but the electives were our safe havens. Our place to experiment our energy into art, and creative process. … Unfortunately, now in LAUSD all of that is so limited. Shameful because these are positive outlets for students to express themselves and get that creativity out there in the world.
I believe the strike was absolutely necessary. Yet I felt an emptiness. Emptiness of not being able to go onto my campus, a bit of anger for having to be out on the picket lines to fight for what are basic necessities. I remember when elementary classes were 20-to-1 [student-to-teacher ratio] — how did we get here?? I missed my students so much, I emailed them all explaining about the strike and why we were out on the picket lines because the media, especially the Spanish media, was giving misinformation. It was a learning experience for my own children who were on the picket lines every day with me.
I believe UTLA did what they could in regards to the agreement, yet they are dealing with a broken system that has overcrowded classes, and not enough nurses, counselors and psychologists.
I am not a pro-charter teacher or parent. I believe charters are hurting our LAUSD system by being oversaturated within the LA area. Our enrollment continues to fall, teachers continue to be displaced, and the charter schools are selecting specific students to enroll, and leaving our most vulnerable students with disabilities excluded. Charter schools take resources away from public schools, We need to invest in our current existing schools and invest funding to our public schools and stop the growth of charters. Anyone can open and operate a charter school, get public funds and run it with no educational experience. Anyone with a billionaire backing can fund the campuses and continue to support and elect pro-charter candidates onto the LAUSD school board to gain their support. It is quite disgusting and scary at the same time.
I believe teachers are not given the proper respect that is deserved. I have heard so many ridiculous comments about our profession, such as the time off and pay. Teachers are not rich and our pay is spread over 12 months, yet our job is worth so much more than the pay. We are not just a teacher — let's put that title into perspective. Teaching is one thing, classroom management to teach is another. We walk into work daily with students who are not all paying attention, problems at home, issues with family and friends, homelessness, poverty, group homes, home responsibilities, family problems, etc. Getting a classroom full of students with various learning levels, disabilities, and all that I mentioned — to get them all to focus, pay attention and learn with rooms overflowing with bodies is quite a task. Not to mention we are also the nurse, therapist, counselor, in the classroom many times.
I would like to thank all of our LAUSD teachers for working so hard, taking their weekends to grade and lesson plan, spending their own money for supplies that are needed in the classroom, from crayons to tissue that is not abrasive to our kids' noses! I would like to acknowledge our LAUSD teachers who invest their hearts and souls into their profession and impact their students on a daily basis to push them to be amazing adults with bright futures.
I fell into teaching. I worked for Power 106 and La Raza 97.9 while in college. My background is in community organizing. As a student at CSUN in 1996, I had no clue what I wanted to do. One night I was watching TV and I saw a story about an L.A. sheriff named Sylvia Smith, who was in need of a bone marrow transplant. She was asking the community to come to her aid by getting tested to see if anyone could match her, or anyone in need of a transplant donor. I immediately took flight and began organizing bone marrow drives in honor of Sylvia. I contacted the number and I got to meet her at the first bone marrow drive at CSUN in 1997. I organized the students, campus, contacted radio stations, local businesses for donations and of course the National Marrow Donor Program. We registered over 250 people that day.
One successful bone marrow drive, and I continued. Sylvia introduced me to a 2-year-old boy named Mario, who was in her same situation. I organized drives for both of them, and asked the community to register for marrow donation and possibly help anyone in the U.S. who was in need. Unfortunately Sylvia passed. Then Mario passed at the age of 5. It was the biggest devastation of my life. When Mario died, the NMDP hired me. I met a little boy named Kyle, and I was on the path again. Kyle went into remission and I left the NMDP and I continued finishing my degree. When I graduated, I decided go into teaching. In the process I finished my credentials, and my master's degree in 2003. I began teaching at the college level, and my community work stopped.
Then I got a call from Kyle's mother, Marty, when Kyle was 14. Ten years later and he was stricken with brain cancer. Another devastation. She asked me if I could put my community work into high gear and see if I could get his favorite singers to meet him before he passed. WIth a cellphone and lots of pushiness, I was able to get Steve Perry to visit Kyle. Then I began contacting all the news stations, and reporter Elizabeth Espinosa took my story on air. Kyle met his favorite celebrities: Steve Perry from Journey, George López, Chester Bennington and Rob Bourden from Linkin Park, Ozomatli, Danny Trejo and world middleweight boxing champion Sergio Martínez. Ozzy Osborne and Bllie Joe Armstrong from Green Day offered much-appreciated words of encouragement in phone conversations with Kyle. It is amazing what a laptop, a cellphone and determination can help you accomplish. For me, this helped make Kyle's dreams a reality before he died at the young age of 15 in 2011.
I was able to inspire my students with Kyle's story, and felt this was the perfect place for me. To help others in need and reach for the stars. This journey of organizing in the community paved the way for me to be founder of Wish Upon an Angel Foundation in Mario's and Kyle's memory.
As a high school teacher I have never been one who stays in her class, I am always trying to find new ways to inspire youth. I tell my students, “No matter what job or career you choose or fall into, never be average and always make the best of whatever you do. You are not mediocre, you are amazing.”