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Jaime Escalante and great teachers: born or made?

March 31, 2010 |  2:36 pm

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