Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Memoriam of Ganas in Education

Jaime Escalante died today. He was 79 years old. For those who don’t know, Jaime Escalante was made famous through the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, which recounts his creation of an AP calculus program in Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

In the movie and, as I discovered later, in real life he comes across as brusque, irreverent and completely intolerant of the political necessities of teaching, but his uncompromising belief that all students, no matter what their racial, social or economic background, can succeed at academically demanding course work when they are properly prepared and motivated touched me in my core as a young aspiring educator. His incredible and hard won success at Garfield raised public consciousness about what it took to be a great teacher, and reaffirmed the truth of the statement that children will rise to the level of the expectations placed on them.

“If you don't have the ganas, I will give it to you because I'm an expert.”

The concept of ganas he popularized is one I hold to closely in my practice as an educator. Simply put, ganas is desire, but the term implies more than just want. It implies a willingness to do what is required to realize that desire. It took Escalante 10 years to achieve the successes at Garfield that are depicted in Stand and Deliver, and there were a great many fights, setbacks and pitfalls along the way. That he never wavered from the goal speaks volumes about his views on what makes success.

He also believed strongly in the value of doing the basic really well. “You become ‘gifted’ from practicing,” he was quoted as saying once. “Practice assures success. I give you a simple equation and you do it and do it over and over and you store that information.” I believe this is an absolute truth, and it has informed my teaching from my earliest days. He was willing to give incredibly of himself to see that the truth of this statement was borne out in his students’ success. I aspire to do as much.

“It goes like this: Teaching is touching life."

One of the things that has always struck me about Jaime Escalante is the length to which he would go to help his students do amazing work. I think that, to him, there was very little difference between his teaching and any other area of his life. It is much the same for me. I value first and foremost the relationships I build with my students. It is through these that I am able to motivate them think beyond themselves, to challenge them to do more than they might otherwise and to realize that they are capable of doing incredible things -- if they would only choose to do them. He was not shy about reinforcing his belief in his students’ intrinsic potential, as well as the importance of choice: "One of the greatest things you have in life is that no one has the authority to tell you what you want to be. You’re the one who’ll decide what you want to be. Respect yourself and respect the integrity of others as well. The greatest thing you have is your self image, a positive opinion of yourself. You must never let anyone take it from you."

Edward James Olmos, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante and who remained close to him, told the New York Times in an interview once, "He had three basic personalities: Teacher, father-friend and street-gang equal -- and he would juggle them, shift in an instant. . . . He's one of the greatest calculated entertainers." I have always loved that depiction of his teaching style, and it’s one I try to emulate. Escalante was a consummate performer in class. He was always cracking jokes, rendering impressions and using all sorts of props, from basketballs to wind-up toys to meat cleavers, to explain complex mathematical concepts. I don’t know that Mbungo is as cool, but I hope he does the job as well.

I mourn Jaime Escalante’s passing today. He had a tremendous influence on me as a young and idealistic teacher. Escalante’s energizing style of teaching and for his staunch defense of the highest standards of teaching and achievement were a principal force behind my own practice at a time when I needed just that kind of professional role model, and continue to be a source of inspiration even today. I believe my profession was made much the greater for his contributions.

An article about his professional journey is available [HERE]. I don’t know that it’s of interest to everyone, but if you watched the movie or knew of the man, perhaps it will add to your understanding of who he was.

[photo credits]


Mrs. Chili said...

I actually welled up in my car on the way to work as I listened to NPR tell me about Mr. Escalante's death.

my frugal life said...

Great movie....along with "The Emperor's Club" , they are two of our favorite teaching movies...Have you ever read "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" or seen the DVD?? Mike's personal fave!!