Jason Kamras, the first National Teacher of the Year from Washington, D.C., wants people to know that urban children want to learn - they just need the resources and support. Included: Programs initiated by the National Teacher of the Year.
Those would be his students at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Washington, DC. Kamras, the 55th National Teacher of the Year and the first to represent the District of Columbia, began a year as a full-time national and international spokesperson for education on June 1.
Kamras was inspired to become a teacher in part by the disparities he saw between educational opportunities for children from low-income and those from upper-income families. He wants people to know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can master challenging work and perform at high levels if they are provided with the opportunities and the resources. For the past eight years, Kamras has worked at Sousa as a social studies and math teacher, coming in early and staying late to maximize learning opportunities for his students.
Kamras's hands-on efforts to improve student performance included convincing his principal to double the instructional time for math and redesigning the math curriculum to emphasize the increasing use of technology, address all learning styles and put instruction into a real-world context. Kamras also taught advanced math classes before school to prepare students for the Stanford 9 standardized test.
The curricular changes, piloted with his own students in 2002, helped the percentage of students scoring "below basic" on the Stanford 9 test to fall from approximately 80 percent to just 40 percent in one year, according to the National Teacher of the Year office. His students also have met the school district's math adequate yearly progress target every year since the No Child Left Behind legislation was implemented. He is now working to expand the program to the entire school.
Kamras also has gotten Sousa students involved taking digital photographs of landmarks and scenes around Washington, D.C., to create autobiographical photo-essays. The students' photos have been displayed in public exhibits in the D.C.-area.
Now on leave from teaching, Kamras recently talked with Education World about how he hopes to spend the next year talking about the need to remedy the disparities among public education systems and honoring his fellow educators.
"I wish people knew -- and believed unequivocally -- that children in urban schools are just as capable as any other children in this nation. They are extremely bright, creative, and dynamic," says Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year.
Education World:What are your goals for your term as Teacher of the Year?
Jason Kamras: I have two main goals. First, I would like to bring a message of thanks to the educators of this nation. My colleagues work tirelessly each and every doing wonderful and challenging work. They lend their passion, creativity, and love to children of all ages, and they do so almost always without recognition. To my fellow educators across this country, I would like to simply say, with deepest respect and admiration, "Thank you."
Second, I want to raise awareness about the inequities in our public education system, and the unconscionable achievement gap between children from low-income and high-income communities that has developed as a result of these inequities.
EW: What do you wish more people knew about urban schools and students?
Kamras: I wish people knew -- and believed unequivocally -- that children in urban schools are just as capable as any other children in this nation. They are extremely bright, creative, and dynamic. On average, though, they have not had access to the same educational opportunities as children from more affluent areas of the country. It is our solemn obligation as educators and leaders to eliminate this inequity, and ensure a truly level playing for the children of this nation.
EW: Who inspired you to become an educator?
Kamras: I was inspired to become a teacher by many people, beginning with my mother. She taught in the New York City public school system and, while growing up, I would always hear her speak very fondly of her experiences in the classroom. I was also inspired by many of my own teachers, from elementary school all the way through college. But, most of all, I was inspired by the children with whom I worked as a tutor and VISTA volunteer while in college. I was immediately captivated by my students' great intellect, creativity, and humor. I knew then that, for me, nothing would be as important or rewarding as dedicating my professional life to the education of children.
EW: What is your definition of a quality teacher?
Kamras: A quality teacher, in my view, is someone who: 1) knows his/her subject matter with great proficiency; 2) has the demonstrated capacity -- as measured by quantifiable student achievement -- to share that knowledge with children; 3) holds all children, regardless of background, to the highest of standards of excellence; 4) leads by taking full responsibility for his/her students' achievement; and 5) inspires students to pursue dreams they never imagined.
EW: What do you find most rewarding about working in your school? Most challenging?
Kamras: For me, the most challenging part of teaching is finding a way to connect with each and every child on my roster. Every student has particular learning styles, social and emotional concerns, and personality traits. It is my job as a teacher to learn everything I can about my students so that I can connect with them and effectively teach them. This is an incredibly challenging process, particularly at the secondary level where, as I do, a teacher may have close to 150 students.
But, this process is also one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of teaching, as it affords me the opportunity to learn about my students. Once I have done so, and developed a deep sense of trust within my classroom, I am able to help my students achieve at levels they may have never imagined. This is the ultimate reward.
This e-interview with Jason Kamras is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2005 Education World