Ever since college, I’ve paid my bills by teaching, tutoring, and coaching.
During the 2018 World Cup, the SAT summer bootcamp teachers would gather in the break room and catch the games on someone’s phone. A small group of us craned to watch Mexico deliver a corner kick on a dirty iPhone screen before ducking back to teach the next round of English grammar. A week into the tournament, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu — I had done the exact same thing during the last World Cup, rushing to the nearest pizza parlor during lunch breaks for a glimpse of the games (I have a distinct memory of standing in Ray’s Pizza with a crowd of Irvine office workers, gaping as Germany routed Brazil).
Four years had gone by, and although I had switched companies, I was in the exact same position. I swore that by the end of the year, I would be out of education.
Not that teaching was a bad gig. Education has always been a rewarding industry — tutoring is a high-paying, extremely flexible hustle, perfect for the struggling artist. But it wasn’t where I wanted to end up, and spending any more time going over the basics of subject-verb conjugation when I could be doing something else was frustrating and unfulfilling.
I’ve spent eight years working in some capacity or another as an educator. I’ve done everything from serve as the administrative assistant director of an SAT prep house to coach a speech and debate team to teach AP US History.
By the end of this year, I should be saying farewell to the industry that’s provided me with income the good majority of my working life.
Here are some of the lessons and stories that have stayed with me:
1. Pay. Teachers. More.
Teaching is inarguably the most underthanked, underappreciated, and underpaid job in the United States. I don’t speak for myself here, since my privileged ass has only worked the private after-school education sector. I speak for all my teacher friends, all the teachers who have instructed me at some point or another, the ones who put their mental sanity and bodies on the line for a system that fails to recognize all they do.
It infuriates me to see the work my finance/tech/consulting friends do and the work my teacher friends do, and then to the realize the yawning disparity between the two salaries. I challenge anyone who works in a white-collar position at a corporate office to last two hours in front of an American public school classroom. You would collapse after one. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of my teacher friends are borderline alcoholics.
When you’re in front of a classroom, there is no off-switch. Teaching is the most in-the-moment job there is; you have to be constantly present, on your toes. There is no such thing as checking out.
Want to learn improvisation? Don’t bother with improv comedy. Stand in front of a bunch of unwilling sophomores at 8:30 a.m. on a gorgeous June day. All of them have been forced to spend their summer in an ice-cold classroom prepping the PSAT — if you can pull a laugh out of this crowd, you can crack any room.
For all the work my teacher friends do, their salaries ought to be quintupled. The starting salary for a public school teacher ought to be in the six-figure range. I’ll say this until the end of my days:
Pay. Teachers. More.
2. You can’t save them, but you can make them read.
Teaching is similar to the medical profession in the following way: if you go into either field because you want to save lives, you will come away demoralized.
A doctor can make recommendations: eat less sugar. Stop smoking. Exercise regularly. They can’t make their patients execute those orders. Sometimes doctors get presented with a case in which they truly make those life-saving decisions. But from what I understand, the majority of being a doctor is dealing with day-to-day banalities, and hoping that your patients follow-through.
Teaching is not so different.
Especially in the realm of after-school education, there’s very little you can do to truly change the trajectory of a student’s life.
There is so much pain that you as an educator cannot take away, that is not yours to take away. You are not the abusive father or the absent parents. You are not their native homeland, the one in which they speak their language fluently and understand all of the teacher’s instructions. You are not a priest and you are not a therapist, although you can do what you can to listen.
You cannot save them.
You cannot save them, but you can make them read.
3. Make your kids read.
As a literate society, we take reading for granted. What many don’t realize is that reading is a skill; it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, and it will atrophy if ignored.
By the time a student is in high school and they’re struggling with the SAT reading comprehension section, and their parents are wondering why tutoring isn’t helping, all you can tell them is that they’re about seven years too late.
Across the board, the students who struggled with SAT Reading were kids who “couldn’t remember the last book I read for fun.” The students who had no trouble were kids who devoured books.
I think there’s some statistic that if a student falls behind in literacy by the time they’re in second grade, they’re pretty much fucked.
This doesn’t just translate to standardized testing. Look around you. The number of people who fail to process emails and chat messages, the amount of times you complain “did they not read what I sent?!” Bad reading comprehension seeps into everyday life.
The only way to get better at reading is to do it more often. If there’s one thing to start ’em young on, it’s this.
Four stories. All names have been changed.
Shane and the public speaking monster.
Shane came to the United States in his 8th grade year. His mom enrolled him in my middle school speech class in the hopes that he would learn to open up and improve his English.
Unfortunately for him, my speech class focused on an event called Impromptu — by the end of the course, students would be able to deliver a 5-minute structured speech with just two minutes of prep. This is hard enough for a fluent English speaker well-versed in American humor and culture, but to generate an entire speech in your second language, in a country you have just moved to, is unimaginably mortifying.
Impromptu class was torture for Shane. He had no problem doing the written assignments each week, but when it came time to speak, he would fidget and pause for 30-second stretches, struggling to come up with his next sentence. Who can blame him? I can hardly string a paragraph in Chinese together, and I’ve been speaking it my whole life with my mother.
The intention of the speech class was to prepare students to eventually compete at sanctioned speech and debate tournaments; however, there was no requirement that any of the students do so.
To compound matters for Shane, his mother forced him to compete. Unsurprisingly, he scored last in every round.
The turnover rate at the middle school level was high — the average amount of time a student spent in speech class was about six to eight weeks. Because of his mother, Shane spent the entire spring semester of his 8th grade year with me, longer than any other student. When classes broke for the summer, I expected that to be the end of my time with him. I was partially relieved — he was not a gifted speaker, and his language issues made coaching him difficult.
Then something clicked over the summer.
Shane made new friends, and his friends happened to love debate. That fall, speech classes went from being a miserable experience to a fun and engaging space. Daniel and Jason, his newfound friends, were very serious about competing, so Shane became serious about competing too.
Once I realized that these boys were actually going to participate in high school-level competition, my whole coaching strategy shifted. It is considered unkosher in the event of Impromptu to “can” your speeches — that is, to rehearse and memorize examples ahead of time. When I did Impromptu in high school, I prided myself on never being a canned speaker. The whole point of the event was the ability to speak off the cuff; canning speeches defeated the purpose.
Given Shane’s language limitations, he was never going to be a brilliant off-the-cuff speaker. We canned the crap out of his speeches. We created an example bank of twenty examples that he could use for any given topic. Every gesture, pause, and joke was choreographed down to the second.
As time wore on, our small class became very close. Some classes were dominated by discussions of life and philosophy and Marvel superhero movies. One year, we held class on New Year’s Eve. Shane delivered the best speech I’d ever seen him give. He was ecstatic. What a great way to end the year, he told me. We spent the remainder of our time making resolutions for ourselves.
The following spring would be my last semester coaching speech and debate in Orange County — that fall, I would move out to Los Angeles.
The Cal State Fullerton Invitational was the spring tournament we’d been working towards all year. All three boys would be entered into the novice division and I was confident they’d go far. I told them that if any one of them placed at the tournament, I’d get them Taco Bell for the next class.
Shane and Jason both made it to finals. If memory serves, I believe Shane came in 5th place. At the next practice, I brought in quesadillas and tacos and Cinnabon bites. It was for all of them, but it was mostly for Shane. The kid who had slinked into class in 8th grade, arduously failing to cobble a paragraph together, would go on to make finals at a speech competition. I couldn’t have been prouder.
Shane was the perfect example of what education, working in concert with social reinforcement, can do for a student. He would never have signed up for speech classes in the first place and he would likely have quit after the first week if his mother hadn’t forced him to stick it out. Then, because of the crowd he happened to fall into, Shane was encouraged by his peers to compete.
You could say that my coaching played a part in his development, and yes, I did teach him the format, the gestures, the nuances of public speaking. But none of that would have materialized if other factors in his life hadn’t pushed him to try. If it hadn’t been for his family and friends, he would have been like all the other middle school students — done after eight weeks.
Speech class gave Shane confidence and leapfrogged his knowledge of American culture and the English language. I don’t condone overbearing parental expectations, but in this case, his mother made the right move.
As an educator, so much of a child’s motivations are out of my control. Sometimes a case like Shane comes along, a case that at first seems like grueling work on both ends. But once that tide starts to turn, for reasons that may be wholly unrelated to what you’re doing in the classroom, seize it and hang on. The results can be magical.
Rajesh and the trek to SAT prep.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked as an administrative director at an SAT prep house in Thousand Oaks.
On Saturdays, we ran all-day SAT prep classes, from 9:00–5:00. The schedule was thus: from 9:00–12:30, students would take a full length SAT. Lunch broke from 12:30–1:00. Then from 1:00–5:00, students sat through various classes reviewing the test they took that morning.
Early on during my time at the Thousand Oaks branch, I encountered a student named Rajesh. Raj would arrive around 8:30 and take a quick nap before his test. I asked him why he came always came so early.
He told me it was because he was commuting from Santa Maria. My jaw dropped. Santa Maria, a little agricultural town in central California, was 120 miles to the north. Raj and his father got up at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings in order to make the two-hour commute to our facilities in time.
Why didn’t he attend an SAT prep place closer to home? According to the research Raj and his father had done, there were no adequate prep centers close to them. This Thousand Oaks branch was the highest quality service that was still drivable.
While Raj sat in SAT classes all day, his father found ways to kill time. He went to the Thousand Oaks mall, he went to the Thousand Oaks library, he went to fetch Starbucks, he brought his son lunch.
Every Saturday, for weeks on end, they would get up at 6 a.m. and make the two hour sojourn to our prep center. Dad would wait around for eight hours, and then promptly at 5:00, he would pick up Raj and they would make the 120 mile trip back home.
In total, Raj’s father clocked in 240 miles every weekend, just so his son could improve his standardized test score (It worked. Raj scored in the 99th percentile).
Many of the students at the Thousand Oaks branch came from surrounding Conejo Valley cities, including Calabasas. The Calabasas kids would complain to me that Thousand Oaks, a mere twenty minutes away, was so far. In traffic, it sometimes took half an hour!
Raj and his father never complained, not once. They always arrived early and always made their payments on time.
The second week I saw them, I ducked into the break room and cried. I cried because Raj’s father reminded me so much of my own parents, of my friend’s parents, of the sacrifices they were willing to go through for their child’s education. I cried because it was late 2016, and a certain someone’s campaign was predicated on vitriol towards immigrants. I cried because these were the small things immigrant parents did that most people would never recognize.
True grit — uncomplaining, dignified, and for no one to see.
What $10,000 can buy a Chinese girl.
Parachute kids (n.): Children sent to a new country to live alone or with a caregiver while their parents remain in their home country.
Our Thousand Oaks branch received three Chinese girls who had all come to the States in their freshman or sophomore years — Katie, Lauren, and Megan.
Megan was lucky enough to have her parents here; Lauren was alone for a while until her parents moved out; Katie was a parachute kid in the true sense of the term.
At the prep house I worked at, we offered a “total care package” with a steep sticker price. For $10,000, a high school junior could take unlimited classes with us, receive academic counseling, and have their hand held through the college admissions process.
Katie came to us in November of her junior year, when her parents were visiting for the holidays. Since I was the only Chinese speaker in the building, I led them through our programs in my faltering, shoddy Mandarin.
It didn’t take much convincing to get them on board, especially since Lauren and Megan were a part of the same program already.
“Take care of my daughter,” Katie’s father told me. I’ll never forget that. “Take care of my daughter,” he said as he wrote out a massive check. The following week, he and his wife would fly back to China. Katie would see them twice the next year.
Katie, Lauren, and Megan were always at our offices, sometimes up to four days a week. They worked their asses off at school, and with help, they managed good grades. Megan’s circumstances led her elsewhere in her senior year, but Katie and Lauren were both accepted to four-year American universities.
They had done it. They had achieved what they had been sent to do.
Despite their families’ wealth, their journey wasn’t an easy one. The American high school can be a particularly cruel institution, and it’s possibly the worst way to transition to American culture. Nevertheless, these three were still regarded as lucky. In their case, money really did ensure their academic security. Money took care of them then, and it will continue to take care of them down the line.
All of my most intense experiences as an educator took place at the Thousand Oaks branch. On the surface, the Conejo Valley bubbles with wealth and suburban restlessness. I’ve witnessed an alcoholic parent, drunk off her ass, take a parent-teacher meeting with one of my co-workers at 3 in the afternoon; I’ve seen students screech into the parking lot in brand new BMWs and Porsches; I had an entire class worth of students miss two weekends in April because they were partying at Coachella and Stagecoach.
Peer a level below the surface, and you’ll find a whole class of immigrants, clawing and scratching and doing whatever it takes to attain access. Maybe one day, they too will get to participate in the excess.
I’ll make a Jonathan Gold out of you.
The commute out to Thousand Oaks proved too grueling; by spring 2017, I transferred to the Koreatown branch, only two miles from my apartment in LA.
The final story I want to tell is of Charlie, who was part of a middle school book club I lead earlier this year. Charlie was sporadic about completing assignments. Every week we would open class with a quiz to make sure the students had read the assigned chapters. Those who did not pass would have to stay an extra 30 minutes after class ended. Charlie regularly failed and stayed.
In the beginning, Charlie was talkative, disruptive, and never took anything seriously. He sometimes displayed flashes of a mean streak, making fun of another kid for what they said and how they said it. It was obvious to me that these comments came from a place of insecurity and not real malice. Charlie had a brother, four years older, who also attended our programs, and I think he was under pressure to live up to his brother’s example. He made just enough self-deprecating comments about his chubbiness that one could assume he got grief about his weight.
For one of our units we read chapters from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Charlie was excited — his father was a restaurateur and food was his favorite subject. But he found Pollan’s book to be immensely boring, and as usual, he failed the comprehension quizzes.
I ended the food unit by having everyone write an in-class essay on their perfect meal. One student wrote that his perfect meal would consist of spaghetti and pizza. Another girl said hers would be a giant ice cream sundae. All typical responses you would expect from middle schoolers, whose understanding of good food is limited to spaghetti and pizza and giant ice cream sundaes.
Here is an excerpt from what Charlie turned in:
“For this perfect meal, the appetizer will be a fresh oyster platter with lemon juice, with the salinity of the oyster reflecting the ocean view and the acid of the lemon cutting through the briny flavor of the oysters.
For my main course, there will be two options: a tamer, more mature pan-seared cod with a lemon caper butter sauce and a wild mushroom risotto, and a wilder primitive fried fish taco with an herbal pico de gallo and chimichurri salsa.”
I was floored. Thirteen years old and with food knowledge like this?! I don’t think I knew what a risotto was until my sophomore year of college. I am even more ashamed to admit that I didn’t know what pico de gallo was until a few years ago.
I shared his essay with the other members of staff; we effusively praised his writing and attention to detail. I told him that he should be the next Jonathan Gold. I told him he could be the next Jonathan Gold.
I think that may have been the first time anyone legitimized his writing. He told me my comments were “so weird” (defense mechanism kicking in!) but I could tell he was immensely pleased.
A few months later, I caught Charlie talking to one of the other teachers at our branch. She asked him, what kind of career are you interested in pursuing?
He said he was going to be a food writer.