Teacher Spotlight: Columbus Middle School teacher Carol Park on why she never left middle school, forging a college path for students and families and leading with her heart
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 23, 2019
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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.
Carol Park doesn’t take lightly the responsibility of teaching what she calls the “underseen” middle school student. With most of the attention given to the early elementary grades and the high school level, she thinks of the middle school grades as a “foundational time” where teachers can begin developing a student’s path to college.
Park has only taught at the middle school level. Currently, she teaches seventh-grade math and leadership at Columbus Middle School in Canoga Park, northeast of Los Angeles.
“I never left middle school, because the thoughts, or the ideas that are formed in middle school, they carry with them to high school. And at our school with students, with their backgrounds, many of them drop out in high school … but it’s what’s formed in middle school, I believe that sticks with them,” Park said.
That she acknowledges that many of her students don’t come from “a perfect home,” has helped her, she said, to have a strong relationship with them, which then allows her to have conversations with them and their families about pursuing college.
“I think the more knowledgeable our parents are in doing this path, the more we’ll see more students following this path,” she said. “It’s just sharing information and communicating it regularly. Not just once a year, having a college fair, but it should be consistent.”
Park is excited about bringing new technology into her math class this year. She says her students will have an iPad, which they are going to be using to create videos of themselves explaining math problems. “It will bring more fun into the classroom, into the academic learning part, it will get students more engaged. I’m super excited about the technology piece.”
LA School Report asked Park about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to teach at the middle school level?
I think middle school is a time when the children are — and I hate to use the word neglected — but maybe underseen, because in elementary school, the parents are very, they’re very involved, and in high school they’re getting ready for college, so they’re also very involved. But in middle school, they’re kind of lost. The children are on their own, and that is when I think they need the most support in middle school because they’re developing. It’s a foundational time, and I have a lot of influence. Teachers have a lot of influence and groundwork to put into these children to instill in these children when they’re in middle school. That’s why I never left middle school, because the thoughts, or the ideas that are formed in middle school they carry with them to high school.
And at our school with students, with their backgrounds, many of them drop out in high school. Some of them might drop out in 10th grade, 11th grade, 12th grade, but it’s what’s formed in middle school, I believe that sticks with them. Like, ‘Oh, I can make it through this. I’m not gonna give up.’ And I think that’s why I’ve always stuck with it. And I love the school that I’m at now because every day I feel like my work is meaningful.
What are the main social and academic challenges faced by your students in their community?
Our school is a Title I school where most (of our families) are low-income families. We have … our students, like 98% are Latino. A lot of the parents, don’t have college degrees, they don’t have higher education. The dialogue at home isn’t, ‘You’re going to go to college after high school.’ It’s more like, ‘When you’re 18, we need you to work.’ My day to day conversation with them is trying to change that mindset, it’s that, ‘Hey, if you apply yourself, you’re able to make it to college. And it’s life changing, what a college degree can do for you.’ That’s not just for a few of my students. I say that to every student I come across. And it’s not, ‘Oh, this one’s going to be great at sports, or that one.’ I don’t make that judgment because I, nor anyone else, knows what a student will grow up to be. I don’t want to limit that for them.
What do you think the school district, or the state could do better to meet your students’ needs?
I think the district can help in providing more professional development that was made mandatory, where it wasn’t an option, because I’ve grown a lot as a teacher because I volunteer, and go to professional development. There’s so much useful information that I wish all my colleagues would receive, but it’s on a voluntary basis. I wish it was more mandatory.
What do you think is most misunderstood about your job?
I would say what’s most misunderstood is the influence that teachers have on students every day. How much influence we have, our day-to-day language, how we talk to them. We’re like family to most of these students. We spend more time with these students than some of their families because they’re working longer than they’re at home. And how much we influence them. I have lunch clubs, and I have a Girl Empowerment Club. We’re spending class time, lunch and whatever break, or after school, or before school (time). And in that hour, that it’s consistently they’re doing hard work, and they’re performing and they’re open to learning. That’s a lot of time that we’re spending to get to know each other. Every year I’m saddened at the end of the year when they have to go. I’m always sad because it took a year or two to really get to know them, and then they move on.
When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?
When I was little, my third-grade teacher was great. She taught me how to multiply, and I just really embraced education at that age. She had a lot to do with it because she was so positive, and I just thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a teacher when I grow up.’ And as I got older, it was just something that I, you know, I evaluated. I watched how my teachers were and I just thought, This is a field I really do want to get into’ and I think I would be helpful because I wasn’t a strong student and it was hard for me to learn things. And I always thought, ‘Well, you know, I could show them a different way, or I can teach it’ … I just thought of different ways to teach things so that it’d be more interesting … I never wanted to do anything else.
What are you currently doing in the classroom that you think is unique or innovating?
For me, it’s building relationships with my students. It’s knowing when to push them or when to pull back, it’s having a sense of understanding each student that I come across. And I also approach each student as though I don’t know how much trauma they’ve had in their life. I, from day one, I don’t go in thinking, ‘Oh my students had breakfast this morning,’ or, ‘They came from a perfect home.’ I always think, ‘I don’t know what happened last night, how much trauma is in their mind already.’ When they come in, I’m very sensitive to them, them to me and we just feel each other out. In LAUSD, we push the six pillars of character traits, and I try to build those six traits all year long, and that it’s not just something that we say or that we demonstrate one day a year, but it’s every day. We try to be responsible, we try to care, we try to build citizenship. And it’s just having a constant dialogue. There’s a lot of communicating, and encouragement, and a lot of positivity. But at the same time, I will call them out when they’re wrong, knowing if that’s the right time. But I will say, ‘Hey, that’s not appropriate. You don’t curse in class. Don’t be mean to each other.’ Especially with girls, sometimes they’re in the age right now where if you look different, or you wear something different, they can be mean to you. And I try to talk to them about how to solve their problems with more positivity and being more open-minded.
How do you think your school or the district can help you be innovative in the classroom?
I think our principal (Debra McIntyre-Sciarrino) has been working a lot with that, and she’s really helped with us collaborating more. It’s not like we’re isolated in our own rooms, in our department meetings. We’re in a program called InnovatED, where we have to collaborate, where we have to communicate, and we have to share what we’re doing and if it’s working. We talk about why is it working and how are we going to continue it. Or if it’s not working, we discuss, ‘Well let’s discontinue that and try something new.’ There’s a lot of collaboration, which has helped tremendously with moving forward.
What would you say parents can help you do a good job in the classroom?
There are two parts to this. For me, I don’t call parents, I text them. That has helped a lot because sometimes they don’t answer the phone, but when I shoot them a text message they respond. Responding to the teacher has helped, as well as just reaching out if they have any concerns. It can be an academic concern or a personal concern. Having a strong relationship with the teacher. I’ve seen more successful students when the parents are very involved, just checking up on how their son or daughter is doing.
I think in the middle school level they want to kind of push off. I’ve heard parents say, ‘Oh, I want my child to be more independent,’ but being independent doesn’t mean leaving them alone. It’s still coming to school, checking up on the student, checking up on them, checking on their grades and seeing how they’re doing. And if there’s a parent conference needed, even for a positive chat conference, that’s fine, too. It doesn’t always have to wait to be a negative thing.
Is there anything you wish would change in the (public education) system, or that you think needs immediate attention?
I think the value of education. Right now I hear a lot, I see a lot of arguments about, ‘Oh, if you invest in an education like a higher degree, you’re wasting $200,000 for a $40,000 job,’ and I think that’s a huge misconception because I think if you can make money off of your college degree, that’s wonderful. But in higher education, college is to expand your mind, not only to just make money, but for the community to get better. And I think that’s a huge conversation that isn’t happening because the more education the community has, the better it becomes. For me, I strongly believe in college because it makes the environment and community better regardless of the income. It just makes the community better because people are more knowledgeable. And what you do with that knowledge, if you can make money off of that knowledge, that’s wonderful. Just being educated is valuable enough.
What would need to happen so all students could have the opportunity to access a college education?
You know what, I just think having conversations is a great start. Having conversations, and then also showing them around. I have two children of my own, and I have been talking about college to them since kindergarten. And I’ve talked to my children about this is good for college, this is how we get in, this is what you have to do. It’s having those conversations. For me, I know how to get there. And I think a lot of these families don’t know how to get there, so there should be like a class or something that can be offered. Even, not even if a class, but seminars for parents so they can get information to, you know, before your child’s high school, download a college application, see what are the qualifications to get into college, get information about FAFSA. (Let them know) that there are things out there that will help them. And I think the more knowledgeable our parents are in doing this path, the more we’ll see more students following this path. Because if you don’t know it, how are you going to get there? It’s just sharing information and communicating it regularly. Not just once a year, having a college fair, but it should be consistent.
What would you say is one of your proudest accomplishments?
Not in my eyes, but other teachers had labeled (some students) as difficult boys, and they’re the type of … if they don’t like a teacher, they will curse out a teacher, very defiant, very rude, very disrespectful. And in my class, I was very proud when we had instructional rounds and there were (other) teachers and there was a director with us, and those students stepped up and articulated math arguments. And they were able to analyze the problem and explain why the problem was incorrect, or why they agreed, or disagreed. And they were very engaged. And it’s not just that one moment, but it’s that whole year, watching my students engaged in lessons where these are students that are getting F’s in their classes, but they’re able to articulate, they’re able to read, write, speak on math problems, grade-level math problems, Level Three math problems.
What kind of support were they given in your class?
I think it’s that in my classroom, I have mutual respect from day one. I don’t look at them differently. I don’t have any prejudgments about them. As I said, I don’t know what kind of trauma level they might have. I come in with an open heart, and I expressed that to them. I don’t have any information from their past, I haven’t spoken to any of their teachers. Even if their teachers say something to me, I won’t hold it against them. It’s in one ear, out the other, and that we start fresh.
It’s not always a good day. Sometimes they’re mad at me about something, and then as an adult, I need to know when I just need to back off, let it go, this student is having a bad day, and when I need to step in and say, ‘No, it’s not OK. You don’t get to speak to me that way.“ It’s having judgment and the right heart. My father told me — I had him make a speech one time. I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know what to say,’ and he said, ‘Tell them that you love (them).’ For me, I just go in there with a loving heart every morning.
What is your main goal for the new school year?
My main goal is to build on the relationships I have with the students, because some of them I have them for a second year, and to really … I’m really excited about my new students, the ones coming out of sixth grade coming into seventh grade because it’s a totally different experience than what they’ve had before. And I’m really excited to start the new year. Every year, I’m excited to start the new year. And I guess, mine it would be building relationships and then we can build from there the academic goals.