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It Takes Ganas

April 2, 2010

Ganas” is a Spanish word meaning “motivation sufficient to act.”  It was a word often used by Jaime Escalante, the former Garfield High School teacher who was the inspiration for the movie “Stand and Deliver.”  As the education world sadly learned on Tuesday, Jaime lost his valiant battle with bladder cancer at the age of 79 in the company of family and friends.  He helped transform a tough East Los Angeles high school by motivating his students to master advanced math and erase the stereotype held by many that inner-city students cannot perform at the highest levels.

Listening to an appreciation of Jaime on NPR as I drove to school, I was again reminded about the selfless deeds of a great educator.  It also confirmed the chance we have as teachers to change a student’s life and, quite possibly, an entire education system.  An immigrant from Bolivia, Jaime taught AP Calculus and other math courses for 20 years to students from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  His students faced incredible odds.  However, Jaime, a tireless advocate and motivator, helped them recognize their true potential, as he broke down even their own misconceptions about what poor and minority students are capable of achieving.

Jaime also made clear that success does not happen overnight.  In a world obsessed with quick fixes and instant gratification, acquiring knowledge and changing lives can be a slow, laborious, and sometimes painful process.  The Hollywood version of Jaime’s story leaves the impression that within weeks, students struggling with multiplication tables evolved into confident mathematicians mastering theorems, algebraic equations, and AP Calculus exams.  However, as we all know, reality is much different.  Jaime’s successful students matched their teacher’s hard work and commitment, and it took time.  They came to school an hour early, left hours after the last bell of the day, and attended mandatory Saturday classes as well as summer school.  His motto in and out of the classroom was that one must have ganas, the desire and drive to succeed.  Even though he was confronted with kids wanting to give up, hesitant parents, and colleagues and administrators questioning his motives, Jaime refused to lower the bar.  He understood that a real transformation in learning must be matched with time and effort.  Taking away the hard work meant forfeiting the learning.  As I hear from many of my own former high school students who are now in college:  “Now I know why you pushed me so hard.”

So it is a bit ironic that the next story to air on NPR was about Los Angeles Unified School District cutting school days in an effort to save jobs.  Public education has now become an either/or equation: save jobs or provide adequate time in the classroom.  We all need to embrace Jaime’s lesson and legacy.  It takes time, passion, vision and support in all its forms, including money, to help all our students achieve levels of success that match their incredible potential.  While Hollywood highlighted one master of his craft – Jaime Escalante – we know there are thousands of other teachers out there working hard each day to bring the same level of opportunity and success to their students.  And they need our local, state, and national policymakers to show some ganas and “stand and deliver.”  Adios Jaime.  Gracias.

Photo information: This March 16, 1988, file photo shows Jaime Escalante teaching math at Garfield High School, in Los Angeles. AP-File

6 Comments leave one →
  1. David B. Cohen permalink*
    April 2, 2010 11:07 am

    I love your take-away on this post – quite fitting. I was not a big fan of the movie, but hold Escalante himself in high esteem.

  2. April 3, 2010 7:40 pm

    “selfless deeds of a great educator.”

    I have a hard time with this one. I agree that Jaime Escalante was a model of effective teaching…some might say that he was what all teachers should be. But I have an issue with the premise that teachers should be martyrs, turning over their lives (read: time) to suffer tirelessly. Some will choose to do this, and yet still be ineffective–I work with some who are at school from 6am to 9pm and are by many measures inefficient and ineffective, despite all the hours they invest.

    And then how to judge those who, like me believe that my top priority–the priority toward which I choose to invest my energy whenever possible–is my family? I leave at soon after the buses cart the kids away, and spend my evenings balancing school work and family life. I certainly hope that the definition of “great educator” does not require the term “selfless.” We need to make sure that in praising the brilliance of teachers such as Mr. Escalante, we don’t construct a presumptive dichotomy (as Maja Wilson on pointed out in a conversation today, the dichotomy where teachers are either idols or lemons, as Maja describes it well). Selflessness should not be requisite for great teaching.

    Escalante certainly changed not just the lives of his students, but also the generations of their children and grandchildren. But it is unfair to expect the same of all teachers, in my opinion. Escalante’s story is well known and was made into a film because he was literally exceptional–he was the exception. I don’t strive to be like Escalante. However, I still work darn hard at my job and at the risk of sounding egotistical, I’m pretty good at it–I reflect on my successes and failures and am constantly learning, experimenting, and recrafting my practice to better serve my students. My worry is that when the exceptions are held up as the ideal of what a great teacher should be, their very nature as exceptions make the rest of us utterly inadequate since we cannot measure up to that exception. Utter inadequacy: a phrase which I guess just reinforces the sentiment that most of the nation (and nation’s policymakers) has about its present teacher workforce. It’s too easy for policymakers to say, “he did it, why can’t they all just be like Jaime Escalante?” instead of considering how to build structures of funding, time, and training which might move teachers a little bit closer to that (truly) unachievable, exceptional Ideal. Alas, though, when that Ideal is not achieved, the whole program would be scrapped anyhow…

    • Kelly Kovacic permalink
      April 4, 2010 10:36 am

      Mark: Thank you for a very thoughtful and honest response. I don’t think any of us want to promote a system in which only those who “suffer tirelessly” will succeed. I used the phrase “selfless deeds” to describe Mr. Escalante’s unique character and circumstance, not as a prerequisite to great teaching. As teachers, we all need balance in our lives – family, friends, community, faith, etc., in addition to the classroom – to survive. And we all know, and should continuously honor, great teachers in our own communities who do not necessarily possess the notoriety or storyline of Mr. Escalante.

      However, as you recognize, teaching is hard work, whether you do it within the confines of the regular school day or beyond. And, some student populations, especially those living below the poverty line, like Mr. Escalante’s and mine, require more than the regular school day can provide. In a perfect world, the school and teacher may not also need to serve as the provider of a warm meal, safe environment, extra tutoring, and quiet place to study. But some of our worlds are far from perfect. I am extremely proud of my students’ accomplishments – large and small – but they would not happen without early morning tutoring, after school study sessions, and Saturday enrichment programs. Should we be paid for these extra-curricular efforts? Definitely. Are we? Often times, no. As professionals, we need to demand the “structure of funding, time, and training” that you correctly endorse, while at the same time knowing that a profession like ours requires us to keep pushing ourselves and our students.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 4, 2010 10:42 am

      Hi Mark,

      You raise some important points. Part of my misgiving about the film is similar to my reaction in any film about super-hero teachers. I don’t want to see my marriage fall apart, don’t want my children wondering (as in “Mr. Holland’s Opus”) if they need to be my students in order to be my priority.

      Like you, I’m hoping for, even working to bring about, the day when schools are designed to provide that kind of passion, support, and high expectations. Students deserve to be surrounded by a team that will work that hard for them, instead of hoping for that rare individual. A sane and sustainable approach would help all kids achieve, and have teachers helping the students and each other. Jaime Escalante shouldn’t have been the only teacher in a department or school trying to shoulder that burden. (And perhaps it’s unfair of me to suggest he was, as I’m relying on a Hollywood movie for my information – yikes!).

      So, let’s imagine one step in the right direction. How about having after-school drop-in academic support available, staffed by teachers? If that after-school support is part of your job assignment, then you have more prep time during the day, or a later start in the morning. I would see lots of positives coming from a more flexible work-day – more time for teachers’ preparation, collaboration, observations, and more supportive adult contacts for students. Yes, it would be more expensive – it would probably take an increase in staff size needed to accomplish this. For those who are fond of international comparisons though, I seem to recall that our peers in other countries tend to have less instructional time and more time for the purposes I mention above. Or, better yet, link this kind of support to improved teacher induction programs. As part of a teacher residency, you could expect teaching interns to spend part of their week doing this kind of extra support after school. (Again, assuming some shift in their work hours – not just requiring more). For interns and new teachers, this type of work would provide greater insights into how students process and acquire new skills and concepts. As experienced teachers, one of the advantages we have is being able to anticipate where students will struggle and what misunderstandings are most likely to arise. This type of work would certainly accelerate that learning for interns.

  3. April 5, 2010 9:03 pm

    This is a great post, and its followed by some fabulous comments. I totally agree with everything that’s been said here. I’m afraid the underlying reality confronting some of our suffering schools is that we, as a society, are simply not interested investing the resources required to bring all schools up to the level of academic achievement that we’d like to see. After school programming, better trained teachers, support staff: all of these things COST MORE MONEY. We don’t really want to pay more money. So, instead, we’ll come up with rhetorical solutions: “All students can succeed if you just have the right teacher,” and deny the real ones.

  4. Stephanie permalink
    April 12, 2011 5:02 pm

    I love the way you express yourself,
    in a way your right about what you mention about teachers I would totally love to have teachers like Jaime Escalante at our school.
    I am a student at Garfield High school and there are at least 1 or 2 teachers like Jaime Escalate at our school but we definitely need more.^-^

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