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Teacher Appreciation Week: Conversations with Educators at CZI

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Q&A

Teacher Appreciation Week: Conversations with Educators at CZI

Introduction & Interviews by Jana K. Hoffman

May 3, 2019

May 6-10, 2019 is Teacher Appreciation Week, and nearly 25 percent of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative education team, as well as our co-founder and co-CEO Priscilla Chan, have been educators. To celebrate, we’re highlighting six of our team members who were former teachers in classrooms around the globe. Today, they each bring unique perspectives to CZI’s work to help ensure that every child— not just a lucky few — gets an education that allows them to reach their full potential.

Jared Joiner

Jared Joiner, Education, with a former student studying plant and wildlife on the Potomac River.

Jared is a manager on CZI’s education team focused on the science of learning. Prior to joining, he was a bilingual math and science teacher at the Next Step Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., where he served students aged 15-20 who were recent immigrants, in the juvenile justice system, or hadn’t had success in traditional public schools.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

My mom was a teacher so I grew up in and around schools. It was kind of inevitable that I would end up working in education. When I finished college, I was working in a lab doing research, but on the side, I started an organization to provide tutoring to students. I found out I really enjoyed working with kids, and my favorite part of the day was helping them. So, I decided to try out teaching.

What’s something your students taught you?

I’ve always believed that the teacher shouldn’t be this holder of knowledge or this sage on the stage, as they might say. A lot of my students had been through such challenging experiences, whether it was being forced to drop out of school due to a pregnancy or coming to this strange country alone. Their perseverance is one of the things that I’ve carried with me.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

I taught for a few years and then went to grad school so I could connect the dots between neuroscience and education. Then, I ended up working in the Boston Public Schools, in San Francisco Unified School District’s central offices, and at an ed tech company.

I think districts need better examples of educational technology that are aligned with how kids learn and are also well-designed to respond to the needs of educators. I was really interested in this role because it united the things that I love about education and allowed me to support and create things that can benefit teachers and students.

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

One of the biggest challenges when I was in the classroom was how much of a lift it was for me to find technology and resources that aligned with my needs. I think what’s really exciting about my role at CZI is helping educators discover tools that are grounded in evidence. That’s the unique value of technology. It allows us to do things differently and equip educators with the right tools so that they can serve and get to know their students as well as possible.

What does the future of education look like to you?

The future of education, for me, is an equitable system that’s redesigned with the needs of the most marginalized and least fortunate students in mind. I think that we have to work to try to imagine a future without ties to the past several hundred years. We have to put on our science fiction hats to really imagine a system that works for every student — regardless of where they live, regardless of how long they’ve been in this country, regardless of how wealthy their family is.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

I think one of my favorite teachers in pop culture is Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus“. I had science teachers like her, who were kind of mad scientists and took us out into the world to do our learning. That’s something I would love for schools to do more of.

Yuanita Christayanie (Christy)

April 2019 | Yuanita Christayanie (Christy), Education, was a former teacher in Indonesia and Japan.

Christy is a data scientist on CZI’s education team. She was born and raised in Indonesia and ran an after-school program for low-income students in her parent’s garage. Christy also taught in Japan before becoming a research associate at MIT.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

My undergrad degree is in finance. I loved numbers, but I also loved teaching. I’ve always been interested in teaching diverse learners and that drove me to live in different parts of the world. I’ve been lucky enough to experience education here in the U.S. and also in developing countries. Based on these experiences, I understand what equity really means and what it looks like. I remember feeling extremely satisfied when one of my students finally figured out a tough math problem. It was such a great feeling knowing that I had an impact on his life.

What’s something your students taught you?

Kids are very resilient, eager to learn, and resourceful. I have seen many of my students thrive despite being in difficult circumstances. Being a teacher was a very humbling experience for me. It taught me how to not take things for granted.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

I wanted to affect changes larger than what I could in one classroom. A lot of what students experience in the classroom today is a result of policy. I think using data to make that experience better allows us to determine things like resources for teachers and special support for students. I really wanted to be a part of how we shape these policies. I also take data privacy very seriously. CZI has a high standard for safeguarding student information, and our team works hard to uphold it.

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

My experience taught me that students have different needs and what works for some might not work for others. Since we’re reaching real students and impacting their life trajectories, I always push for continuous evaluation — finding evidence on what works and how we can better serve students.

What does the future of education look like to you?

The future of education will hopefully provide more access and opportunity for underserved students. I honestly believe in the power of data to help create better learning opportunities.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

Sheldon Cooper from “The Big bang Theory“. I’m a science geek and having that character portrayed on a TV show is so cool for me.

Margarita Florez

Margarita Florez, Education, works with a student at Kipps Schools. Photograph by Rudy Espinoza

Margarita is the director of teacher and leader development on CZI’s education team. She taught kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and eighth grade in Los Angeles and Oakland, CA. She also designed and founded a charter elementary school.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

I had never intended to become a teacher. I also never intended to become a school leader. It was during my sophomore year at UC Berkeley when I took a class that completely shifted the way I viewed the world and my own experience. The class focused on current issues in urban education in California and it ignited a fire in me so much so that I brought my dad along to class with me.

I needed him to hear what I was learning. I didn’t know how I wanted to get involved yet, but I knew I wanted to do something to better understand the systemic inequities that students of color faced in California. We watched pieces from a documentary called “The First Year“, and seeing those teachers talk about their experiences and why they started teaching, it just clicked. I turned to my dad was like, “that’s what I want to do.”

What’s something your students taught you?

I’m constantly overwhelmed by the courage that young people have. Students can attain anything they want. I think about everything that’s ahead of them when they have all of the support and all of the systems working in their favor.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

I think it has more to do with why I decided to go into philanthropy. Many of today’s students look up and don’t see faces like theirs represented by those who design interventions and make funding decisions. In order to get to a place of a future for everyone, all students, especially the ones most underserved, need to be represented. I came to CZI because it truly believes in this vision.

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

I’m always thinking about what’s in the best interest of students and what’s in the best interest of teachers. I think that my on-the-ground experience allows that voice to be heard. I think bringing that voice is something I feel responsible for doing.

What does the future of education look like to you?

I hope that we get to a place where both schools and learning are truly contextualized to the needs and interests of students and families. I also hope that education becomes a place where school environments focus on the whole child and the whole adult.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

Melvin B. Tolson. He was a teacher in the movie “The Great Debaters“. He’s a real person, but Denzel Washington played him in the movie. He essentially coached a debate team at a historically black college to go to the national debate championship. He just believed in his kids and carved out an incredible path for them to use their voices and to be heard.

Tom Curran

April 2019 | Tom Curran, Education, was a former eighth grade science teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City, OK.

Tom is a data scientist on CZI’s education team. Before joining, he was an eighth grade science teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City, OK.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

Education has always had a strong presence in my life. Both of my grandmothers were teachers. My mom was the high school librarian at my school. In college, I volunteered at an elementary school and then I did a few educational volunteer trips around the world. Right out of college, I joined a technology firm, but shortly after, I realized I wanted to do something different. So, I joined Teach for America.

What’s something your students taught you?

I grew up in Boston and moved to a part of the country where it was very culturally different from where I grew up. My students taught me that the world outside of my own experience is just as important.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

Prior to CZI, I was a data scientist at the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC). I was awarded a policy fellowship from the Leadership for Educational Equity Group and they placed me inside of OPSRC where I got to see how policy in laws impact a classroom.

I love teaching, but I wanted to be part of that change on the political scale. So, I worked very closely with state policymakers and rural school districts to use data to help build a better school system. While at OPSRC, we started introducing personalized learning to new school districts. I’m a huge advocate for personalized learning so when this opportunity came up, I couldn’t say “no.”

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

Having been a teacher in an under-resourced school that faced a lot of challenges, I’m constantly putting myself back into the shoes of that first day of teaching — how I felt, what I wish I knew then. My experience in the classroom really helps me understand what our team can do to help teachers.

What does the future of education look like to you?

With the advent of technology and the use of data science, we can build tools that integrate learning science and how a student really learns. Teachers are a huge piece of that. Technology isn’t going to solve every problem and it’s not going to replace a teacher. But it will help empower teachers to really get to know their students and meet the needs of every student.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

I have to go with Mr. Feeny of “Boy Meets World“, because he reminds me of my teachers. It was tough love, but he really pushed his students. That was something I found very compelling.

Frances Ko

Frances Ko, Education, taught seventh grade English in the San Francisco Unified School District at Aptos Middle School, in San Francisco.

Frances is a teacher support specialist on CZI’s education team. Before coming here, she taught seventh grade English in the San Francisco Unified School District at Aptos Middle School.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

I knew that I wanted to do public service in some way. So, I was doing a lot of internships at courthouses and City Hall, but they just never felt particularly meaningful for me. I started volunteering and really enjoyed my time with students. Then I fell in love with history and English and wanted to be a master of the content so that I could teach the same passion and interest to students.

What’s something your students taught you?

Patience and kindness. Patience is magnified in the classroom when you have 32 kids asking questions and there’s only one of you. I constantly remind myself to be patient and present. Middle schoolers are super sensitive and they internalize a lot of things, because they don’t have the ability to separate it out. School is everything that they’re doing at that moment in their lives. So just being extra kind can have an impact.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

I’m inspired by our mission that all students from any background deserve a quality education. I think that it was the right time for me to join an organization that’s driving this point and also trying to measure how effective classrooms can be. I wanted to be a part of that.

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

Empathy is so important when thinking about what teachers do every day and how that’s magnified when there are 30 students in the classroom all asking for help. I think having that experience helps me stay grounded and understand where teachers are coming from.

What does the future of education look like to you?

I think it means that every student — no matter what background, no matter where they’re living, no matter what race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background — has access to quality education. And I’m really hoping in the future we can think more about the arts and have a diverse portfolio of courses incorporated into our curriculum, like skills and trade, that students can take.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

It was a close tie between Dumbledore from “Harry Potter” and Mr. Feeny from “Boy Meets World“, but I think I’m going to go with Mr. Feeny just because he’s so sassy. He’s super honest with his students, he cares about them, and has a really authentic relationship with each of them individually. I think that he served as more of a mentor than a history teacher.

Katrina Stevens

March 2019 | Katrina Stevens, Education, helps a student at LEAP Innovations, in Chicago, IL.

Katrina is the director of learning science on CZI’s education team. She has 15 years of teaching experience and taught mostly high school English. She also has five years of district experience most recently in Baltimore County Public Schools and went to Bermuda, where she helped revamp their education system, through Johns Hopkins University.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

I fought it hard, to be honest. I probably should have known when I was 11 because I started my own mini school in the summer. Parents dropped their kids off, and I charged $2 per kid. The other moment was when I was on a PhD track to become a university professor. I was studying late medieval and early Renaissance women’s writing and was running the writing center at Temple. I got pulled into working at a very under-resourced school in north Philadelphia when schools were really unsafe. That experience made me realize I could help change some of those systems so I went and got my master’s and started teaching instead.

What’s something your students taught you?

First and foremost, children are children. I taught at one of the top learning schools in the country and I taught at this incredibly under-resourced school in north Philadelphia and then everything in between. Kids who had a great deal of privilege or kids who were in gangs still had their own stuff that they were dealing with. They were still 14 years old underneath it all.

Secondly, don’t make assumptions. Teachers have to dig in because oftentimes when a child is acting out, there’s something else going on. Kids make mistakes. It’s their job to make mistakes. But it’s our job to understand why.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at CZI?

I left the classroom with a good gap in between. I miss working with kids, but I really enjoy working with teachers. So I did teacher training in my next set of roles after leaving the classroom. Then I went to work for the Obama Administration. For me, it was a much bigger arena to make an impact. It was important to work at CZI because I wanted to make sure that the district voice was part of our conversations.

How does your work in the classroom directly impact your work here at CZI?

My lens is totally from that perspective. Every time I go into a conversation, I have to ensure I know what it’s going to look like on the ground. How will a teacher be able to use something? How will a student respond? I also think about it through the district lens and whether or not something we intend to implement is scalable.

What does the future of education look like to you?

We need to think about education more broadly than we do now, because the idea of “school” will not exist in quite the same way. We need a more well-rounded approach to how we teach so we can connect young people with fulfilling lives and one that’s aligned with today’s workforce.

We recognize that young people are motivated to connect their learning to something external and a sense of purpose. If teachers miss that, it’s a lot harder for young people to learn because they don’t know what to attach it to and they don’t know why they should preserve when something is difficult. It’s also important to understand developmental phases and when certain skills and subjects should be introduced. We should take advantage of these phases and design learning environments around them.

Who’s your favorite teacher in pop culture?

I would say Dumbledore from “Harry Potter“. He instilled this belief in getting kids to trust themselves and wasn’t so stuck on the rules. Instead, he had a particular set of underlying principles that were more important.

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