The country is failing to provide children equal opportunity in its schools, Jason Kamras, last year’s national teacher of the year, told a crowd of about 70 people Monday, Feb. 6 at Lake Anne Elementary School.
The inner-city math teacher spoke out against the educational inequities between poor students and the affluent, calling it a crisis in America.
For the past five months, Kamras, who teaches eighth graders at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Washington, D.C., has taken a hiatus from teaching to travel the country as a sort of teaching ambassador, speaking to thousands of educators, administrators, parents, politicians and civic leaders.
He left his latest stop at Lake Anne to a standing ovation.
“As teachers, we have such great power to impact the lives of children,” said Kamras, who received degrees from Princeton and Harvard universities. “As a country, we haven’t been able to give children equal opportunity in the one thing that allows them to fulfill their potential — education.”
Children ought to be restrained only by their imagination not their zip codes, said Kamras.
THE LAKE ANNE ELEMENTARY School PTA organized Kamras’ visit. Giannina Velez, PTA president, introduced Kamras, touting his teaching success and his ability to adapt his “instruction to the real world context,” which Kamras explained in his speech.
For example, Kamras used digital photography projects to help introduce various math concepts. The difference between a wide-angle lens and a regular lens is the allowable angle of view, said Kamras, who used the idea to help teach geometry.
The crowd drew completely silent and more attentive when Kamras told stories of some of his former students. Kamras talked about one student, named Wendell, who was almost lost in the system. Kamras was able to help him by offering after-school tutoring. A relationship grew and Kamras helped Wendell periodically during his high school years.
“He scored in the mid-1,300’s [out of 1,600] in the SATs,” said Kamras. “And he was the first person in his family to go to college.”
For Kamras, each story drove home a point. “Surely, people like Wendell deserve an equal chance at life, and as teacher we can give it to them,” said Kamras.
“I tell you these stories to inspire you just a little bit,” said Kamras.
BEFORE SPEAKING ABOUT some of his students’ success stories, Kamras thanked teachers for doing what they do. “I believe education is a basic human right. It’s the opportunity for children to pursue their dreams,” said Kamras. “It’s incredible the work that teachers do.”
He also left the crowd with a few bits of advice: maintain high expectations, focus on solutions rather than challenges, maintain a sense of urgency and build relationships with parents and students.
“For me, [what stood out] was Kamras’ belief system — the belief that he could make a difference for his students,” said Laura Shibles, acting principal at Lake Anne. “He really works to connect with students.”
Shibles said Kamras’ message resonated with several teachers.
“I think his words were inspirational, and it really made me reflect a lot on my own experience as a teacher,” said Marty Coaxum, a first grade teacher at Lake Anne, adding that some teachers in the audience will probably take some of his suggestions back to their classrooms.
Kamras competed with candidates from every state and five territories to win the teaching award, which is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and is sponsored by Scholastic Inc. He is the 55th teacher to be recognized.