My Corner of the World: Anthony Yom
by Anthony Yom | 04.12.16
My Corner of the World: Anthony Yom
Anthony Yom is a calculus teacher at Lincoln High School — a public high school serving a predominantly low-income student population in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles.
For the past three years, Anthony has seen every one of his students pass the AP Calculus exam. This year, a senior in Anthony’s class was one of just 12 students nationwide to obtain a perfect score.
But that’s not what Anthony wants to talk about.
Instead, Anthony would rather share how he once shied away from the subject for fear of failure, how his colleagues gave him strength and the reason he welcomes mistakes.
In Anthony’s corner of the world, perfection is possible, but it’s potential that’s celebrated daily — and it looks a little bit like this:
I teach because I want to share as much knowledge as I can with these kids. I truly believe they are our future — that in teaching them, we’re molding the future.
In the beginning, I was very stressed — up to a point where I wasn’t sure if I could continue with teaching. I kept hearing, “Leave it at school and come back tomorrow.” But, as a first- or second-year teacher, that’s not an easy thing to do — your emotions are not a switch. Eventually, the kids realized that even at home, I still think about them. I would be calling them at home — that’s when they started to open up.
When [given the opportunity] to teach calculus, I sort of resisted for a few years because I wasn’t sure if I could do a good job. To be honest, I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t great at it either. But, more and more students that I had taught at a lower level were telling me that they wanted me to continue teaching them, so I said, “Okay.” I was kind of afraid, but I thought I would give it a try.
I had to put in a lot of time to re-learn the material in a way that I could deliver. The first year was a little bit of a struggle, but I had a great mentor who was watching out for me. With his help, I was able to figure out exactly what it is that these kids need to know and how much time they need to invest in learning the content.
Having a mentor is very important — that’s how I survived. I always had somebody to talk to after some really brutal days. Sometimes they didn’t give me advice, but just sitting down with them — it saved my sanity.
At the beginning, I was very afraid of making mistakes. As a teacher, the thought is that you shouldn’t be. But, I still make careless mistakes here and there, and I realized that’s okay — that my mistakes could actually make the kids feel more confident. I work really hard to show that teachers are human, too. And you know, it’s funny — I came here [from Korea] when I was 12, so I still believe that my English is not perfect. What that means is my vocabulary is not very academic. I always stress knowing the official terms, but I use a lot of slang, or everyday vocabulary that kids will use. When I explain things to them, it’s much easier for them to understand, because I’m speaking their language.
It’s not so much about how I deliver the content, because I’m sure there are many other teachers who deliver the content better than I do, but I can confidently say that I’ve created an environment where kids safely step up to the plate and try different things without being afraid of making a mistake, an environment where we can still joke around about them.
Collaboration is key in my class. As we approach the AP exam I divide my kids into groups — I call them little pods. I find it so amazing how some of these kids are actually better than me at explaining [the concepts] to each other. Once they taste the joy of giving something to other kids, if they feel like they can help somebody, kids really enjoy that. I often [have] kids coming up to me, not because they don’t understand the concept, but because they want to know, “How would you explain this to other people?”
[The learning] isn’t all done by me — I’m just a facilitator, I’m just a coach. They’re the ones playing the game, and they’re the ones helping each other much of the time. I give all the credit to the kids.
My goal as a teacher is to help them stand on their own, because I’m not always going to be next to them. How can I teach [my students] to find their support? How do I make sure that they can find the resources within their reach to help each other?
We created a Facebook group page — we can all join and communicate through that platform. I have five group pages for calculus — every year I build one. It’s amazing how they still communicate with each other, how they’re watching out for each other even though they all went to college.
So, it’s not like I have a secret strategy. It’s just about creating the right environment where students can ultimately take ownership of a class and help one another become a team.
And you know, they really understand what “team” means — they don’t want to leave anybody behind. They pick each other up on the way and push each other. A lot of the time, I don’t even have to try and convince them to do their homework, they’ll tell each other, “Let’s go. Let’s move on.”
Of course, every student’s [progress] will have a different result. Cedrick’s year [Cedrick received a perfect score on the AP exam], everybody passed. Out of the 21 students, 17 of them scored a “5,” four students scored a “4” and just one student scored a “3.”
The student who scored a “3”? His name was Vincent, and right after first semester ended, he came up to me and asked me if he could drop the class. He felt like he was letting the whole team down because he was struggling. I was surprised — I’ve had students drop the class early in the beginning of the year, but midway is already so deep into the course. By then, I’d already had 100% of my students pass the exam two years in a row, so he must have felt that pressure. I told him, “Listen, we don’t think about not passing here. We’re going to finish this course together.” I wanted him to know that it’s okay to not pass — let’s just give this everything we’ve got.
It took me about eight days to convince him, [but] he ended up continuing the class and toward the final month of April he had put in more time than any other kid. Once I received the scores for every one of the students, the first student I looked for was Vincent. When I saw that he scored a “3,” I was very emotional. I knew how much effort he put in to get that score — he gave everything he had.
When I ran into him during the summertime, he was too shy to approach me but I approached him and I gave him a hug — I think that explained everything.
I teach in a low-income community and sometimes [the students] have bigger issues than learning algebra or calculus. They have a [parent] who’s working night and day and they need to pick up their younger brother — those are certainly obstacles that I didn’t go through when I was a high school student. It can be really hard for them to give their all, which they do. So yeah, our kids have a lot of problems here and there, but it’s about becoming somebody that they can trust.
Sometimes, that means just giving them a ride because they’re late to pick up their brother, but they appreciate that type of support.
The thing is that once they realize that I really care about them, they find time within their given situation to do the work.
If anything, what [my students] have taught me is that they really can learn. [There was a time when] I thought some kids just couldn’t learn, no matter what I did. But they’ve proven me wrong. If I can just unlock their ability to perform, any kid can perform beyond their expectation. The unlimited potential that they have? It’s beyond anything I can imagine. That’s what they’ve taught me.
Of course, I don’t want to sound like it’s a Hollywood movie — there are some kids that I can’t connect with along the way. I feel like every year, I’m given hundreds of different keys to try to unlock each student — I just have to find the right key. And I’m going to be quite honest, sometimes I fail, but I keep trying — over and over.
Teachers should not feel as though they’re alone in this.
You need to realize that it takes a village — the parent, the community, the administration team. It takes everyone’s efforts, and a lot of the times that support just isn’t in place. But, if you’re genuine and show that you care, students will notice it — kids are smart, they can sense these things — and they’ll start changing. They will show that they can learn and they can achieve.
My kids are living proof that I’ve made a difference. I have a student who is becoming a teacher, I have a student who is becoming an engineer. It’s not immediate, but that’s the reward. Real teachers make a difference outside, not just inside of the classroom, because at the end of the day, [students are] all going to leave it.
Connect with Anthony on Instagram @yom_yom_.