In 1988 I fell for a middle-aged, weather-beaten, loud, impassioned hero in a movie. In Stand and Deliver Edward James Olmos portrayed Jaime Escalante as the savior of students that I strove to be. Convinced that anyone with ganas, a Spanish term for drive and desire, could overcome barriers and learn, Escalante taught math at Garfield High to disadvantaged students with limited math backgrounds. The barrios of East Los Angeles provided an unlikely setting for success, but Escalante led these students to succeed on the demanding AP calculus test year after year. Their results seemed so impossible that Escalante and his students were accused of cheating, but they triumphed by passing the test a second time under strict supervision.
I, too, believe that all students can learn. The first time a student from one of my remedial English classes returned from a successful semester in college affirmed that philosophy. Escalante said, “Ask ‘How will they learn best?’ not ‘Can they learn?’ “
Teachers who have a passion for learning, who believe in their students, break down learning opportunities into manageable increments, provide support and encouragement, give honest feedback, and create opportunities for success after early failures. So often I’d look a student directly in the eye and say, “There’s nothing here that you can’t do.” And then I’d try to figure out what they needed that I could provide to help them succeed.
Too often we provide a one-size-fits all to a given class, no matter how diverse. Good teachers explore the methods that best work for their learners. Although I’m a very visual person, I learn best by doing, and I need a reason and a context. The American History lectures I endured in high school depended entirely on my auditory learning skills, my weakest modality, and I never found a reason to memorize the dates. In college I discovered political science classes that focused on the who and the why – suddenly the when became meaningful. Good teachers intuit their students’ strongest learning styles and teach to them. They provide context, the scaffolding needed for making meaning.
I had some teachers like that when I was a student. Like Jaime Escalante, they believed in me and made me believe in myself. Don’t all learners deserve that?