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Game Changers: James Encinas

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Today's Game Changer is James Encinas. James is currently on leave from Los Angeles Unified School District and Westminster Avenue Elementary for the 2012-2013 school year, while he serves as the Acting Director of Teachers for A New Unionism (TNU), based in Los Angeles. He will be returning to the classroom for the 2013-2014 school year and will continue to work with TNU as a Senior Fellow.

You've spoken of "being on a mission" in your teaching. What is that mission?
I want to ensure that every student has access to an effective teacher and that all students are provided with the opportunity to reach to their fullest potential.

How would you describe your classroom?
The school is a Title I school. The demographic is predominantly Latino (70 percent). This year as in every year, I had a classroom made up of a diverse group of learners. As the year progressed we became a community of learners who practiced the tenants of respect, safety, and responsibility. The students worked together towards a common goal, that of achieving individual and group success.

I teach 4th grade too. Aren't 4th graders cool?

What do you enjoy most about that age?
Having taught 1st through 5th, I find 4th to be one of my favorite grades. The students are beginning to really explore the world around them and developing opinions and points of view in relation to that world. I love when a student comes up to me, as a couple did this year, and says, "Mr. E, I know what I want to be!" To which I reply, "What?" And they say, "I want to be a writer!"

I hear you are great with community outreach. What do you do to get the parents and community engaged and invested in your school?
I value them and their children as I do my own. It leads to mutual respect and understanding and plants the seeds of collaboration and engagement. I've been teaching in the same school for 15 years. I've attended my students' weddings, high school graduations, funerals.....I'm part of their community.

Can you tell me more about how and why you identified your role as a union representative as a particular challenge you wanted to grapple with?
I've come to believe that if we are going to fix the educational problems we face today, we are going to have to engage teachers. I firmly believe that the changes that we want to see will only be effective if they are teacher-led and teacher-driven. It is time for us to get involved in professionalizing our profession and making sure that every student has a chance to succeed!

How did you first get involved in the union?
I was asked to be the school chapter chair in 2008. It was at a time when the district was beginning to experience budgetary problems that translated to reductions in teaching staff. I got my teachers to sign on to sharing some of the pain and take what at the time amounted to four furlough days. We had some young and vibrant teachers who we were going to lose if we did not rise to the occasion. I took the staff signatures to the area meeting. I got up to speak and told them of what we had decided to do at my school. I also added that in my opinion, we needed to address the issue of ineffective teachers and ensure that once identified they be encouraged to seek another course of work. I was soundly booed! Rather than disheartening me, it galvanized me towards seeking effective change.

What steps did you take to bridge the gap between the district, traditional union reps and progressive union reps?
We worked on consensus and bridge-building. Seeking like-minded people to work with, towards our common goals.

Did anything particularly surprise (or challenge) you as you began to address the issue?
The understanding that this is a long-term process. I feel fortunate to be involved in the beginnings of a movement which I feel will lead towards long-term educational reform and change.

What came out of your involvement with the union?
We have been able to advance the conversation and engage people in the process that will lead to reform. We desperately need to engage as many teachers as possible in this effort.

How do you think your experience of being an immigrant influenced your involvement in teaching and leadership?
I feel fortunate to be part of two extremely rich cultures. I came to this country at the age of eight and did not speak a word of English when I walked into my third grade class. We Latinos have always been good at assimilating but on a purely educational level, I can see how programs such as bi-lingual education can enhance the immigration experience for all the non English-speaking people that immigrate here. Bi-lingual education did not exist when I arrived in 1966. My brother, who is five years younger, started in kindergarten and has had a very difference experience because he received the fundamentals upon which to build.

How would you like to elevate the teaching profession?
I want to work towards professionalizing our profession on an internal level as well as in the eyes of the public.

You mentioned briefly the differences between early-career teachers and veteran teachers. What can these teachers learn from one another?
If there is one thing I've learned in my 54 years of life is that everyone has something to give and we are all here for a reason. The trick is in learning how to listen. If we could tap into the vitality that our younger teachers bring and merge it with the wisdom and experience that comes from years of teaching...think of the possibilities!

Ten years from now, what do you hope to be different about education?
An environment in which students are served and teachers are well represented. The existence of policies that are putting effective teachers in every classroom and students who are being given the tools to reach to their fullest potential.

What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to be change-agents inside or outside of their classrooms?
Get involved with your union. Access the numerous organizations that are now active in trying to bring about change. Get engaged!

Just for Fun...

If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
My Grandmother Raquel. She helped shape me.

How would your students describe you?
Tough (but not mean).

Teachers are...


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