Inspiration and Dedication

jaime_escalante_by_robert_gauthierYou might not have heard of him, so I thought I’d mark the passing, on Tuesday, of the mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante. (Photo on right by Robert Gauthier.) He was an extraordinary teacher who passionately believed in the abilities of the many East Los Angeles students from disadvantaged and traditionally ignored backgrounds that he taught, enduring the ridicule of his colleagues to press on with the job of teaching them as well as he could, challenging them to reach impressive heights of mathematical ability, especially considering given the circumstances. Some people might know some of his story from the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos. Escalante was said to have liked the film overall, although was dismayed by its giving the impression that the kids all perfected calculus overnight, as opposed to showing them putting in the several hours of hard work needed to get proficiency in so very many things worth doing. There is an LA Times obituary here, from which I quote:

“Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education,” said Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and president of the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Advanced Placement exams.

“His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”

I also love this:

“Calculus Does Not Have To Be Made Easy — It Is Easy Already,” read a banner Escalante kept in his classroom.

This is the sort of teacher I truly admire. He just rolled up his sleeves and, rather than chasing after new-fangled gimmicks as seems to be a trend in seeking more effective teaching methods these days, he simply made human contact with his pupils, trusting in their abilities, and investing the hard work and perseverance needed to get through. He did not wait around for teaching awards, instead measuring his success in terms of the results he got in the classroom. Excellent.

Jeff Labrecque has some nice reflections at Entertainment Weekly.


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