Tag Archives: teaching

to my dear 24-year-old david (from 36-year-old david),

i know you’re in the midst of the hardest year of your life thus far.  it’s your first year of teaching…in the hood of south los angeles.  you probably don’t have much time to spare, so let’s just get right down to it.  

none of your friends or family, well meaning as they are, understand what you’re experiencing right now.  i do. because i’m you 12 years later.  your world is being turned upside down.  you’ve come from a quiet asian american middle class life.  and let’s be honest, nothing has really prepared you for this.  you are experiencing the brokenness of what poverty does to young hearts and minds on a daily basis; poverty that you didn’t even acknowledge existed right in your backyard.  you can’t escape it because it’s your job to face it and try to teach in the midst of it every day.  you are being smacked in the face with the reality that public education in the u.s. is neither equal nor fair…and most of society has turned it’s back on this corner of l.a. because it’s easier to ignore than to deal with.  you’ve never seen this sort of institutionalized dysfunction.  you’ve never experienced so much hate thrown at you.  you’ve never had to work to the point of exhaustion…not just physically but emotionally.

press in.

don’t escape.  i know it’s hard.  i know it’s hell.  but don’t give up.  these very years will be what builds in you a character of perseverance.  these very youth will be the ones that break your heart in the best kind of way to get you to really consider what matters to the heart of God.  but most of all these very experiences will be what opens your eyes to the fact that you desperately need God every day.    

press in.

yes, some of these students will ignore you, some of them will curse at you, some of them will even push you. consider that it’s not so much that they hate you personally but that they will project upon you all the pain and confusion they have experienced at the hands of adults that were supposed to care for them.  if you are going to follow your role model, Jesus, remember He loved those that didn’t love Him back well…and remember that is you, that is us.  

press in.

yes, i know you’re lonely and REALLY wish you had a girlfriend.  but think about it, is that really going to solve your problems?  if anything you’re either gonna escape HARD into this girl or you’re gonna treat her like crap because you’ve got nothing left to give or both.  no woman, no matter how awesome, is going to be in the classroom with you and give you what you need to stand in love and power in the midst of this.  only an infinite God can do that.  yes, a girlfriend’s nice (and yes she will come to you and you’ll marry her and she’ll be pretty rad) but now is not the time…there’s some inner growth in your relationship with Jesus that needs to happen before that or else you’re gonna wreck two people in the process.  and Lord knows we don’t need any more brokenness.

press in.

the work you’re doing now will prepare you for the work i’m doing now (aka the work you will be doing in the future).  this work you’re in now is going to lay the groundwork for and open doors that you’ve never even considered of God’s vision for justice; it will help you see the Word of God in a whole new light…even if i tried to explain it to you now i don’t think you’d understand or appreciate it without what you’re going to experience in the next couple of years.  with that said, i think there are a couple of things you could understand at this time.  

1) david, if you’re serious about disciple-making and leadership development you can’t do it remotely.  at least not effectively. Jesus spent TIME with his disciples and you can’t expect to walk with those you are leading if you don’t even live in the same neighborhood with them.  and that’s how leaders are developed…not just through teaching…it’s through living.  

2) lastly, you need a mentor if you’re going to mentor.  not just a mentor that reflects your experience.  have some humility to recognize you don’t know it all and you can’t do it by yourself.  you need a mentor who has experience loving and walking amongst the least of these, because that’s where you will find Jesus (Matthew 25:40).  sadly, there aren’t that many asian american men that are doing this work, so it’s not like you have a lot of choice…you’re gonna have to be mentored cross-race.  it’ll be awkward at first but don’t let your pride get in the way of your growth to learn from someone different than you.          

press in.  because Jesus did for you.  


on the death of my former students

i recently found out that another of my former students has passed away.  i taught for 8 years at locke high school in south los angeles.  at this point, 4 of my former students are dead…that i know of.   all young men.  all dead via guns.  2 african-americans.  2 latinos.  3 shot by another person.  1 shot from an accidental self inflicted gunshot.

i am saddened by their passing, all too soon and all without a fair shake in life, but sadly i am also not too surprised. unfortunately, all were already headed down a dangerous path by the time i met them.  not only because of the poverty they grew up in.  not only because of the violent neighborhood in which they lived.  not only because of an absence of positive male role models in their lives.  by 9th grade they were already checking out of school emotionally. sometimes i could get through to them but more often my words and actions as a teacher couldn’t reach them.  trust for adults had been broken long before.  they needed support and love in a much more profound way, to not only reach them but to heal them of their deep wounds.

i remember having one on one conversations with each of them.  too often for their behavior.

E was a goofy kid that put a smile on my face.  he struggled with reading.  he would be disruptive, often when he wanted to impress those around him.  he would talk about gangs to seem cool.  but he was still just a sweet child.  he began to run with gangs.  he was shot in the face on the street.

R was an angry student,  but he was creative and a leader amongst friends.  he still remembered the hurt from an experience with an elementary teacher who made him stand in a corner for misbehaving.  he seemed to have written off school from back then.  from my understanding he was shot in the back.

U was another angry student, quiet and tough.  however, he was fiercely loyal to those he loved and much more intelligent then he let on.  he was walking his younger brother to school when he was shot in the chest.

J, this is the student that i had most recently and the one who broke my heart even when he was alive.  so bright, so charismatic.  we had deep talks one on one about all manner of existential questions.  yet when he came to class, he was physically present but often somewhere else. too often he would come to class under the influence of some substance.  sometimes he would just put his head down and refuse to do anything.  i called home multiple times.  his mother was at her wits end with her two adolescent boys.  they would not listen to her even with the threat of the law getting involved.  their father was in prison and unavailable.  this is the student that really compelled me in my private thoughts to think about how young people needed so much more than what i could offer them in the classroom.   this is the student that was an impetus for me changing careers to be a youth pastor: to be intentional, not only to help a young person academically but to support them spiritually.

not that i have gotten there but that is my hope.  this is also not to say that a teacher could not do these things, in fact i still respect anyone in the profession so much for consistently doing the hard work of love.  but i had to acknowledge my limits and where to focus my life.  the lives and deaths of my students are a reminder to me that it is not enough to pass on knowledge but to make time to listen to people and to walk with them.  God, please raise up more people to commit themselves to the hard work of loving like your Son did.  Make me one such person.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'” – Matthew 9:36-38


easier said than done: “the myth of the extraordinary teacher”

it is hard for me to write about my experience teaching in a public school…not only because people who haven’t had the experience don’t really understand (not that people aren’t well meaning, its just that many people have assumptions about the profession since we’ve pretty much all been in the classroom with a teacher at one point or another) but because, especially living in america, it is so closely tied to my person.  this idea that teaching is an art rather than a skill…that how one teaches is their personality and who they are, not simply their method (which is a very american perspective i’ve learned).  and so it hurts all the more to be criticized in this area… i know i shouldn’t be.  i have been learning that we ought not tie our self worth to the work we do…work was never meant to fulfill us that way…it is a never-ending cycle…we can never do enough.  i need to remind myself of truths such as Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

the ideal
the reality

i came across this article in the la times (thanks to both my smarty wife and our fellow education academic friend) today…i was like “right on!”  it really captured some of my sentiments well.  then i decided to read some of the comments.  i was shocked and appalled…confirming some of my suspicions of how deeply misunderstood and dishonored the modern urban teacher is in america, not to mention the inner city classroom.  not that people in any other profession don’t work as hard or face various injustices…its just that this profession, in general, is under a lot of fire (and simultaneously under massive budget cuts) with the worst being assumed about the teacher: schools and students are failing…it must be the teacher’s fault.    as i read some of the comments i had very visceral reactions…like i was being cut with a knife…i felt my blood boiling and my body shaking.   i even posted the following comment on the article in response to some of the comments:


“Thank you for sharing this.  Despite what the teacher bashers (who have never been teachers) say, as a fellow teacher who taught in an inner city school for 8 years (both under LAUSD and Charter), I’ve had many of the same concerns.  If I am reading Ms. Herman correctly, she is not excluding herself from responsibility, she is merely pointing out the faulty assumptions to a simplistic solution. 

Before jumping to conclusions about this teacher, please consider that:

1.) she works for a school that has been recognized for incredible gains in test scores (CBEE, EPIC).   The home school of these students, Jefferson, had an API score of 548 whereas the school she works at (servicing the same community), has an API score of 788

2). she works at a charter school that isn’t backed by an all-powerful union meaning if she is in fact a bad teacher she can indeed be fired because there is no tenure there. 

Yes, many of us work hard at various jobs, but particularly in this job its workers are guilty until proven innocent.  Maybe, this is rightly so, but is it too forward of me to think this may not be the case for Ms. Herman?  Education is a complex issue.  The responsibility lies with all of us (from parent, to student, to teacher, to admin, to government, to citizens) if we indeed live in a democratic society that aims to provide public education that is integrated, equal, and just.”


wow, it is so hard not to take such things personally as a teacher.  i realize that i am so shielded by my bubble of friends and family who value the work of a teacher in the inner-city…so i am very fortunate.  but i also realize that there will always be critics, and usually the uninformed are the loudest

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not looking for pity or trying to position my self above genuine constructive criticism (which is a tremendous folly).  These thoughts are more an explanation of what’s going on inside my head rather than a justification for my attitudes. if anything, i recognize the need to open myself up to a more unflinching view of my self and the profession to which I have dedicated almost a decade of my life. there will be people who misunderstand.   there will be people who criticize (well meaning or not, informed or not).  there are plenty of people who work harder than i do, with less benefit and thanks.  there are people i can and must learn from.  there are real problems with how i view and do my teaching.  God, grant me the right perspective…one that is big, one that is long, one that is honest.  i am reminded of this quote by mother teresa: “if you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”   God may I be humble.

8 lessons from 8 years of teaching in the inner city

in no particular order:

1.  love isn’t just being nice, its being firm  

i’m not one to rock the boat or make people uncomfortable because I don’t like it much myself…but it took being a teacher in the inner city to teach me that love that is deep must discipline.  to love must move beyond wanting the others temporary comfort towards genuinely wanting their long term best.  students i’ve talked to have shared with me that they may have fun with a person that doesn’t discipline but, students actually respect a person who brings order and holds them accountable to a higher standard.

2.  don’t raise your voice…it only makes others raise theirs

it was so shocking for me to see how a class / a student would mirror my own attitude…no matter how much i tried to mask it.  its uncanny, more often than not, if i was happy they’d be happy, if i was frustrated they’d be frustrated, if i yelled they would yell. i learned not to teach “over” my class…if they weren’t listening, becoming silent was much more effective in getting their attention then me fretting for it.  likewise, it was hard not to take things personally when my students came at me with an angry attitude…there was often something unrelated to me that had happened to them in their lives or even earlier in the same day.  i needed to give them the same benefit of the doubt that i would want them to give to me on an off day/period.

3. respect can’t be assumed by position, it must be earned by relationship

I was raised to respect people in positions of authority regardless of whether I liked them or not.  This is not the case with everyone.  Some may have been raised with that value too but have changed by having been burned in life, especially by those in positions of authority that have abused their trust.  With this in mind, I have learned that an important part of my work, if not more important than the work itself, is to work on building up relationships…to keep my eye out for opportunities to acknowledge, encourage, and praise no matter how small the step.  Otherwise they will continue to think I am against them…and so would I.  A single kind word or gesture went so much further than my multiple commands.

4.  sharing a little about your private life can have surprisingly good results

so one day in this crazy period of mine the topic of sex came up.  Naturally, (haha) the kids asked about my sex life.  I told them I was a virgin and was planning on remaining so until I married my wife.  The class erupted in screaming like I had dropped my pants or a bomb in class.  After that my students gave me the most focused and diligent amount of independent work I had ever had from them.  I was so puzzled and still haven’t quite figured this out.  Ok, aside from the fact that my position was so unbelievable (and hilarious) to them, I think they, oddly enough, felt closer to me for some reason…through this awkward revelation.  I’m not saying that people should go telling everyone their “bizness” but I really saw this paradoxical principle that being vulnerable, even for a moment, can disarm others.

5.  its not about the money, its about how the money is managed

I observed quickly that lack of money wasn’t the main problem in the inner city school…in fact i was surprised by how much there actually was (well before the u.s. budget crisis anyway).  i was appalled with how that money was used.  there were a lot of back dealings with senior faculty and staff, HUGE amounts of money laid down for whole sets of books and supplies that we didn’t need nor were discussed with staff.   for example, one weekend the admin decided to buy new student tables and chairs for the WHOLE school (several tens of thousands of dollars), without so much as a consultation or warning to staff.  we just arrived on monday and all the student desks were changed…with desks that were worse than the ones we had before!  they were so awkwardly shaped they couldn’t be used for group work or hold student materials.  as co-department chair we would order the books we needed….months would pass until our students needed their books and we still had nothing.  we’d go to the billings person and they would be like “what order?”  then they would fish through all their papers and find our order form at the bottom of some random stack…while everything for her drill team was ordered right on time.  this was typical before the charter conversion.  good stewardship is so rare.

6.  neglect breeds more neglect

when you work so hard for such a long time at something it is so discouraging to see no change…the same chaos repeated over and over again.  everyday the painters would come to clean up the graffiti…and everyday more graffiti would go up.   new teachers would come in full of passion and leave worn out.   some students would come to class, hundreds of students would ditch class.  it often made us feel like just giving up…like “no matter what we try it doesn’t seem to change anything…so whats the use?”   but one must not give in to the despair they see around them…it makes mediocrity the standard and inhumanity the norm.  the broken window theory really does happen, even amongst professionals…its contagious.   fortunately, the reverse is also true…if you are rooted in a hope deeper than your circumstances, then your faithfulness with the little things now will be unshaken leading to greater fruit in the future.

7.  it takes a village to raise a child

sure one might make an impact as an individual teacher, but what I may have instilled in them might all be undone in the next period that they go to.  or outside the class.  or on the streets.  or at home.  however, through the privilege of experiencing a school conversion with an amazing charter school team, I have learned that when a whole staff (and whatever family members we can get involved) can be on the same page and have a united front, it begins to actually change a sub-culture.   Thanks to Animo Locke II Charter High School for showing me a glimpse of the possibilities when caring and committed people come together.

8. God is the only one who can be with you always in the classroom (and beyond)

that first year of teaching, was truly like walking though “the valley of the shadow of death”.  not only was the pace of work like nothing i had experienced in my life up to that point, the students would fight me to my face – cursing, pushing, standing on top of desks.  the guy who would oversleep for his 11am classes was now up at 5am in the morning with no alarm in a cold sweat and overwhelmed with fear…i would have to face those students…again.  I got my first grey hair, i was losing weight. my friends and family would listen to me kindly, but I’d have to return to my classroom…alone…to a class full of volatile students.  this made me so desperate for God.  who else, would not only know completely what was happening, but be with me any time?  who else could give me the inspiration and motivation to keep on?  Who else could give me peace?  Even after several years of teaching, when a student blatantly disrespects me and bites the hand that is feeding them, God is the only one who could enable me to respond with kindness.  it is only natural to respond to negativity with negativity, it is supernatural to respond with love.  I have only found the source of such crazy love with God.

mercy triumphs over judgement…

aahh…sigh.   my students, a certain period in particular, are really pushing me to the limits of frustration, with their blatant disrespect.  i am so tempted to mete out justice and vengeance.   however, God has reminded me (twice this week) about Joseph (Genesis ch. 37 to the end of the book).  it is His kindness that leads us to repentance.  we deserve justice and judgment for our wickedness…however He doesn’t give us what we deserve…rather He gives us kindness – expressed in all its fullness through the life of Christ.  while humanity was heaping sins and abuse upon him, even then he willingly went to the cross for us, praying for us even as he hung upon the cross.

Joseph is a type of this kindness:

Joseph Reassures His Brothers

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Genesis 50:15-19

may mercy triumph over judgment in my heart and to my students.