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Teacher Spotlight: Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School’s Veronica Amis, 34 years of teaching in Watts with ‘unconditional love’

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 9, 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.

Veronica Amis was born in St Louis, Missouri but she moved to Los Angeles with her family in 1963 when she was three years old, so she went to LAUSD schools until she graduated from Alain LeRoy Locke High School in Watts.

“So I’m definitely a product of LA Unified School District,” says the teacher who has spent the last 34 years teaching second- and third-graders in the same school in that same underserved South LA community.

“When I was young, I had three aunts who were teachers, two were teachers and one was an educational aide. In the summers when I was in junior high school, I would go with them to work because I was out of school and I would help them with their classes,” Amis said. “I fell in love with their classes. I fell in love with their room environment … So I said to my aunt, ‘I want to be a teacher just like you,’ and it did stuff in my head. Before I knew it, I was going to Cal State Long Beach. I wanted to be a teacher.”

After more than 30 years educating mostly black and Latino low-income students at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, one of 18 schools in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit established in 2007 to manage the district’s then- lowest-performing schools, Amis knows what keeps her coming back to the same place. It’s her belief that the community of Watts is very special and that its families trust their educators.

“I feel that we as educators have to do as much as is humanly possible to provide safe environments, to provide acceptance and just unconditional love for these kids,” she said.

Amis has intentionally remained teaching second and third grades because she feels they are so important and that’s how she can best support her students’ learning moving forward.

“For me, second grade and third grade are so crucial to their foundation because after you go onto third grade, and even fourth grade, you are not learning to read, you’re reading to learn. But if you haven’t learned to read, if you don’t have foundational skills in decoding and understanding print, it is difficult for you to read for information,” she said.

LA School Report asked Amis 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 new school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is so special about Florence Griffith Joyner?

I think the community is so special. I feel that they trust educators with their students, with their children and they give us that responsibility to educate their kids and take care of their kids. And it’s such an honor, I definitely am humbled by that. I noticed that community works for their kids (and has) what everybody wants within a community — to have a rich education and to learn to love learning and to be successful.

What do you think are some challenges faced by your students in their community? 

The current climate right now is challenging for the community, with funding cuts, and the political climate, there are so many things that the families face now that are even harsher than it has been in the past. It’s more serious, it’s having such an emotional impact on the students. And I feel that we as educators have to do as much as is humanly possible to provide safe environments, to provide acceptance, and just unconditional love for the kids. That helps them to feel confident and to take some of that fear away from them. So that they can focus on learning. So as educators I believe we need to provide as much support for them emotionally just as we do for them academically.

What would you say is your best moment or day as a teacher? What is your proudest accomplishment?

I would have to say meeting the children’s needs. Making sure that no child leaves my room at the end of the year without having made progress, as much progress as they can make. Instilling in the kids a belief in their ability. I feel like as a human, as an educator, just as a mom, I feel so blessed that a child now has a grasp of their ability and they start to soar once their confidence is instilled, and they build your confidence. That makes me feel like I have done something. Just one part of this child’s life.

What do you think is most misunderstood about your job? 

I think that people don’t know that teachers do more than just teach the curriculum. One important thing that we do is to change life skills. And to help to build a foundation for students that are things that will change the rest of their lives. Like persistence. To be persistent, stay focused on the task and do the best that you can with each task. There’s even a value to being punctual, just be on time, be present. Those are things that are life skills that are things that you take with you for the rest of your life. And it’s a value that we promote as educators, the families support it. And I think that that’s something that people think, ‘Oh teachers, you just teach the curriculum. You’re teaching kids to read and write or whatever, complete math.’ But we do much more than that. Like I said, even just life skills, tenacity, persistence.

After over 30 years in the profession, what would be your advice for new teachers? 

I would say to meet your students where they are, whatever their gifts are, whatever they bring to the table, promote it, encourage it. Whatever it is, don’t be stuck in, ‘Oh, I have to teach this curriculum.’ Always make the curriculum relevant to the students, whatever it is. If you find that your male students may not be interested in that topic, find a topic that they are interested in and they want to learn about and try and meet the students where they are at. So try and make yourself accessible to the kids and help them to relate to you and you to relate to them, which is more important. We’re meeting the students where they are, what their concerns are. I find that little thing that motivates them, meet them at their level.

What do you think the state or the school district could do better to support teachers?

I definitely feel that the fate of the teacher, the community. All stakeholders can invest more in education, specifically nurses, counselors, intervention teachers. You know, we definitely have a need for more staff, more support to meet the needs of our students. That is definitely, to me, a very important way to act. The district, the local government, the state. Even on the federal level, even the private sector can help to support education by investing more in our staffing, in nurses. We need full-time nurses every day at every school, in my opinion. Intervention teachers to help those kids who have somehow not met their minimum competency for the grade levels to help (them). It gets them the foundation of support that they may need. And counselors. We have such a need for counselors where a kid may come to school with grief from the loss of a family member or something. Those supports are just invaluable.

What do you think needs immediate attention or probably needs to be changed in the system at a policy level, either at the state or district level?

Well, I definitely feel like social and emotional learning… I think the curriculum needs a boost. A curriculum that really meets the cultural and emotional needs of kids. Currently, we have a program called Second Step and it’s great in what it does, but there needs to be more. More techniques to meet the social-emotional needs of students.

What do you think needs to happen at the school level, or district level as well, to bring more innovation into the classroom?

I think the experiences from the community, within the community there are all kinds of resources, so it would be wonderful to get more scientists on campus. They have these science fairs, and things like that are neat. And enhanced field trips where the kids really get to broaden their experiences. Going out into the community, maybe a community garden, being more involved in things like that. Growing vegetables and things, or even other field trips to experience. Los Angeles is a big city. It’d be wonderful to really take advantage of all of our entities, to share everything and have that just as a part of the curriculum without having the extra fees and paying for buses and things like that. To just have all the resources available to you at a minimum cost.

What do you think is the biggest way parents could help teachers do their best?

I would love to see every child represented by a family member at different school events, parent conferences, Latin Heritage Dance Festival at our school, our concert night. I’m calling for it to be standing room only where there was just so many parents, we’re just swamped. Just inundated, I would love that. So every child could be represented by a family member at all of our school events. That would be fantastic.

What’s your main goal for the new school year?

It is, as always, to make sure to give my 100 percent effort. That every child that is enrolled in my class, and even in my grade level, that every child makes progress towards meeting their goals. That no child leaves my classroom or even my grade level at the end of the year without having met their academic goals, their learning goals. And that they know their progress, they know that they made progress and it’s evident in their work, in their product that they produce. That is my goal, to be able to have students know that they have made progress from the first day of school to the last day of school, that they have worked toward meeting their academic and social learning goals.

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