I teach Algebra II, Trigonometry, and computer science at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights. We're the only AP Computer Science class in a DC Public School, which is both exciting and absolutely unacceptable.
Education reform is the silver bullet for the gravest problems facing the United States in a new century. It is a challenge too big for just teachers, just administrators, just communities, or just lawmakers — instead, it will require the unyielding commitment of all those groups and many more. I decided to teach because I wanted to join a holistic movement equal to the task of meeting the nation's most urgent social, economic, and moral imperative. I felt I had the temperament and the skill set to be a successful teacher, and though teaching has been the hardest thing I've ever done, I think I was right.
Having grown up in the D.C. area, I have seen firsthand the ravages of the achievement gap. My public high school's 3400 students were of every ethnicity and country of origin; they were gang members and International Math Olympiad champions and 16-year-olds struggling to read; and they were children of diplomats and of landscapers and of migrant workers. Many lacked access to high-quality teachers, sufficient resources, and, perhaps most importantly, the social setting for success. Teaching was a way for me to become part of the solution to those problems.
During my first year of teaching, I noticed that inner-city public schools lack the academic and extracurricular infrastructure to take top students and send them to elite colleges where they can become decision-makers. Often these top students are the ones who lose out most, because there is no newspaper for them to edit, no winning football team for them to lead, and no rigorous AP class for them to conquer.
Around the same time, I also noticed the pathetic state of technology education. By the time I started my freshman year of college, I had already had two and a half years of solid Computer Science instruction, ample preparation for the first few courses of my CS major. Students from a high-poverty school should have the same shot at success in this high-paying, growing field.
So in recognition of these two areas of need — my soft spot for the underserved advanced students and my love of computer science — I lobbied my school to let me start the only AP Computer Science class in the city. We are doing big things in CHEC's APCS class: sharpening students' analytical thinking faculties, teaching them a skill that can carry them to challenging and lucrative jobs, and giving students of modest means a chance to stand out in a significant way to elite tech schools and colleges.
I'm not sure if I have one catch phrase in particular, but some contenders: "That's bush league!" whenever students make an easy mistake. "Easy Peezy" (to which some students respond, sometimes in Spanish, "Lemon Squeezy"). "I'M AWESOME" (every time I remember what's on the next powerpoint slide or correctly solve an example problem).
As any teacher of 16-year-olds knows, most of the funniest moments in my classroom cannot be committed to paper without putting my job in serious jeopardy. But here are a few:
"Mr. Paul, what did you listen to when you were in high school? Duran Duran and stuff?" (I graduated high school in 2006.)
"Dang, I am actually learning things!" (Thanks for your honesty.)
Watching my top Computer Science students gobble up the material, clean their plates, and ask for more is a beautiful sight. They are hungry for new knowledge and skills, and they are ready to demand better for themselves and their families. Perhaps most refreshingly, they are also ready to work for it. I told them the saying, "Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes," and now they are all about washing up. It is an incredible feeling being a part of such a student's journey to academic (and life) success.
You cannot be a good teacher on three hours of sleep. I am nicer, funnier, and more effective when I am on a full night's sleep, even if that means I don't have guided notes in a neatly stapled packet for my students. The most overlooked factor leading to student achievement is teacher mental health.
Charlie Friedman, the school director at my first teaching job, also had a great thought about small victories: If you walk around your entire life looking for a $100 bill on the street, you may never find one. But there are tons of pennies sitting around the street, if only someone would notice them, pick them up, and shine them. Every single student in your class mastering all the material is a $10 moment. Winning teacher of the year is a $100 moment. Having an inspirational teacher movie made about you is probably a "blank check" moment. Those may never happen. But every day, there's at least one small victory—a penny moment—that you can take to the bank, and those start to add up.
When I was a little kid, I loved Ender's Game and the Speaker for the Dead sequels. Every once in a while, I drop whatever I'm doing and binge-read Ender again for the comfort value. I also loved Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Someday I'd like to pursue full-time policy work, though for now I'll stay in the classroom. Toward that end, some kind of further education is in store, though I'll have to wait and see what shape that takes. Before any of that, though, I need to make it to winter break.
The obvious and unquestionable micro-level answer is: DC's students deserve a fair shot at a full life. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees.
On the macro-level: The world is watching. The greatest test for the collective strength of our national values is how we treat our citizens of modest means. In the capital of the free world, it's a shame that so many students are essentially doomed to our society's underclass. Educational inequity weakens our already-shrinking middle class, diminishes our competitiveness world-wide, and spits in the face of the American tradition of leaving the next generation better off than our own. DC should be a "proof of concept" for the rebirth of an American school system.
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