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Jaime Escalante and great teachers: born or made?

Getprev The death this week of Jaime Escalante stirred memories of my first encounter with the famous teacher in 1988, when I was covering education for The Times. The issue of teacher quality was much in the news then, and I thought it would be interesting to examine the question of what separates the virtuoso from the average teacher.

So, of course, one of my first stops was Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where Escalante had gained national acclaim for making calculus appealing to low-income Latino students and coaching them to unprecedented success on the rigorous Advanced Placement exam. His story was spread around the world in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," which starred Edward James Olmos as Escalante. (You can read about his career and the scandal that pushed him into the national spotlight in Wednesday's obituary.

I found Escalante behind a cluttered desk in a small office that adjoined his classroom. He was far from glamorous, dressed in a well-worn sweater and dark pants; his beret was the sole touch of style. The phone rang constantly, and students darted in and out, calling him by the nickname “Kimo,” as he shuffled through the papers on his desk that included a stack of phone messages a couple of inches thick. He seemed quite distracted, and I worried that I might never get my interview.

Then the bell rang, and the master was on. He had his shtick, which included an actual bag of tricks, out of which he pulled a variety of objects. Some served purely comic purposes, such as a series of funny hats, while others had more academic applications, such as a stick with a retracting string that he used to illustrate the mathematical concept of slope.

Yes, he was corny, but his approach was laced with such affection for his students that they forgave him. More important, they listened. And when they listened, they discovered that this short, balding Bolivian immigrant possessed a deep understanding of his subject, an essential element of great teaching. The funny hats hooked them, and his ability to explain the most abstract ideas in math kept them in thrall. For many students, the success they experienced in his classroom gave them the confidence to conquer an often hostile outside world.

Angel Navarro, a Los Angeles attorney who was one of those students, wrote to me Wednesday. He said, “Mr. Escalante was my AP Calculus teacher … and to this day he remains the single most influential person in my life. What I learned during the 10 months in his classroom 28 years ago continues to be the basis of everything that I do. Although he is gone, he lives through me and countless other ‘burros’ on a daily basis.”

Another former student recalled, “I was one of his Calculus students in my senior year in 1991. I remember how he caught me in class one day imitating him. I thought I was in for it. Instead, he made me do his impressions again and said, ‘Not bad, but you could do better.’ He was always pushing you to improve. He will be missed.”

My Escalante was a journalism teacher at Alhambra High School named Ted Tajima, who believed in me (Thanks, Mr. T!) and over the decades inspired hundreds of students with his reverence for the facts and insistence on simple, clear language. He was passionate as well as compassionate, a trait that may have come in part from his experience as a Japanese American interned during World War II.

Did you have a teacher who made a subject come alive for you? Do you think the qualities that make a teacher great are inherent, or can they be learned? I hope you’ll share your thoughts below.

-- Elaine Woo

Photo: Jaime Escalante in 1998. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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Maestro Escalante, you will always be an inspiration in my life and my prayers for your family. It was an honor working with you and representing the Jaime Escalante Educational Fund for many years helping other students accomplishing their goals. Myself, you motivated me to finish my education and I obtained my BA in Speech Communication and Master Degree in Political Science along with my daughter. I have only good memories from you and keep as a treasure one of the Stand and Deliver's scripts which you signed for me. You also inspired our students through the "Movimiento Juvenil Ganas." Gracias Escalante and I am here "Standing and Delivering" thanks for your legacy. Kemo sabe.

Thanks to all the persons who were involved in the Jaime Escalante Educational Fund in the past and keep carrying the legacy of Escalante by motivating students to pursue their education.

Jo-ana D'Balcazar
Formerly Spokesperson and Public Relations for the Jaime Escalante Educational Fund.

Dr. Moujalli Hourani, inspiring past, present and future civil engineers out of Manhattan College. The man sometimes sounds like Escalante but his style toughens you up for what comes in the future. The material he teaches at the undergrad level compares to what others teach at the grad level. His leadership has made the CE program one of the top 8 in the nation.

my "Jaime Escalante" was Dr. Gustavo Wensjoe. He was my professor and advisor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He later became the Director of the Center for International Studies. His hard-nosed approach and teaching style was also one of tough love, full of infinite wisdom and confidence in his students.

In my personal case, he went above and beyond the limits of his job description, caring for and pushing me harder than anyone I'd ever met - with the exception of my mother. He consoled and comforted me when she passed away, advising me to continue to live my life in such a way that would make my mom proud.

A native of Peru, he dreamed of improving the educational opportunities of the poor of his home country. He founded the Peruvian Education Project in 2004, which continues to create the opportunities he dreamed about in Huyacán, a poor district of Lima.

Dr. Wensjoe died tragically in an auto accident on Thursday, March 19, 2009 in Santa Clara, Peru. The accident occurred when a truck driver lost control and struck several cars.

He is deeply missed, and his memory and legacy continues to inspire his students, friends, colleagues, and family.

Rest in Peace, sir.

I am a teacher approaching my 50th year of interacting with young people in high school and in college. I believe that "great teachers" are made out of their intense desires to know (curiosity) and to learn (awareness). We are all born to learn, some more than others; but no one emerges a full-blown teacher in front of a class: on that stage is where teachers either make or break. A good teacher is a showman, a con-man, an enabler, an encourager, a stand-up comedian and dramatist, a listener, a font of knowledge about and a lover of his subject and of young people and their infinitely varied minds, a learner, and a giver. Teaching is not his entire life and he needs be ever mindful of the seductive nature of his students' love back, even and especially if it is earned: they create him as much as he creates them. And many teachers and students have created me.

Finally, it is true that a "teacher affects eternity" in as many students as he touches; so far, I have made contact with 10,000 of them so that there is a whole lot of energy going on here. I am 70-years-old, and I have never felt better and more competent about my craft, increasing in value and mastery
with every class.

Teaching is loving through a medium (whatever your subject is), and the "medium is the message."

Even though, I was not one of Jaime Escalante's students, the importance of how he taught his students is the real lesson here. He taught his students how to learn.

I had an electronics teacher when I was going to Glendale JC that knew his subject so well that he made it seem easy. It wasn't, but with his amazing ability to teach how to learn, I passed his course with an "A+" and by using his learning techniques, after my first semester, I was on the Dean's List in the top 5 % for the remainder of the time I was in school. I still use his techniques to learn things to this day

The teacher that changed me was Ms. L. Prim at Belvedere Junior High (now Middle School) back in 1971-1973.

She gave me a small book about short stories and taught me how to read and be captivated by the stories and making me part of them. Because of her I love to read books better than watch TV and waste my time with boring plots.

Ms. Prim (can't remember if it was Ms. Primm with two M's) had a contest who read the most during the week and I always tried to get the prize and that motivated me to go to the public library and start reading more to put new titles on the logs she provided.

I lost that small book about 8 yrs ago when I let one of my nieces borrow it and she never returned it. I used to always read it over and over and remembered how I started to read and learn more words and look them up in the dictionary and to pronounce and know the meaning.


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