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Urban Renewal


By Jesus Gutierrez, Photos by Walter Lockwood

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:00 AM

Jesus Gutierrez is one of Los Angeles' unsung heroes. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at Baldwin Park High School — as well as a varsity football coach, dance club adviser and grade-level leader — this young Bruin is on the front lines of urban education. Gutierrez shares his experiences, explains why teaching in the inner city matters, and offers tips on how to make an urban teaching career work.

Teaching the Teachers

UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies offers several professional development programs for teachers, principals and administrators. Visit the GSEIS programs page to learn more.

Top tips for making urban teaching work.

There is an adage that says, "Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." There are no truer words in working in an urban school. First and foremost, teachers must have a passion for working with these students as well as a genuine respect for their culture. With that being said, getting to know them is the most important aspect for being an effective ESL instructor. For effective classroom management, a teacher must begin by being very firm with the students. It is always easier to be tough in the beginning and then loosen up as opposed to the opposite. Combining this with an ethic of care will create a classroom community of respect in which the students are comfortable to take the necessary risks. Most importantly, the students can actually feel that sense of camaraderie that will enable them to put forth the necessary effort to succeed academically as well as socially.

Why teaching ESL matters.

English-language learners make up a huge percentage of the student population in the state of California. These students are a vital part of the landscape of California. It is of the utmost importance that we educate these students as effectively as possible. Teaching English-language learners isn't teaching English in the traditional sense. For the most part, English is taught by reading and answering questions, either by answering questions out of the anthology or book that is being read at the time or by working on grammar worksheets. So teaching ESL transforms traditional classroom instruction.

The big challenges.

The majority of the literature that I teach is from a Eurocentric perspective. This makes it a challenge to keep the students interested in this literature. Fortunately for me, I am well-versed on how to make connections so that the students could relate to it. Another challenge of working in an urban school is the deficit perspective that some teachers have toward the students. These teachers believe that because they are underrepresented minorities, these students don't want to learn. Therefore, the teachers' attitudes are negative, and the students respond with apathy. These students have too many obstacles at home for them to come to a place that doesn't value their culture or doesn't believe that they have the capacity to succeed. Another challenge of working in an urban school is being able to communicate to get parents to become more involved in their child's education. It's not that they don't want to participate. It's just that they work very many hours for very little pay. They are constantly in survival mode. They don't have the luxuries that most of us take for granted.

It's a wonderful life.

The most satisfying aspect of working in an urban school is the students themselves. They have taught me so much about being tenacious in the face of adversity. For example, I have students who live with 8-10 people in a garage. I also have students who take a shower outside and rinse themselves with a water hose. I have students whose parents have illnesses but don't have the resources to get the proper medical care. Because of these unfortunate circumstances, they truly value their education.

They have also taught me about valuing the simple things in life, such as a conversation or a hug. These students appreciate genuineness. They can see when someone is blowing smoke and when someone truly comes from the heart. Once they see that, they will give their best effort to succeed. This by far is the best aspect of working in an urban school. Another wonderful aspect is the parents. They have a humility that is definitely refreshing in this me-first, dollar-driven society.

The UCLA advantage.

UCLA produces educators who display compassion, respect and a deep understanding of true knowledge. The training for a career in education is by far a breed above. I don't just say this because I am an alumnus. I say this because I have seen the difference firsthand. Coming out of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies has transformed my life. Thanks to this intensive program, I have a profound understanding of the best pedagogical practices. And UCLA trains us in the latest research-based strategies proven to be extremely effective in the classroom. These strategies have the theoretical underpinnings that give students opportunities to take control of their own learning.

UCLA trains us to go into communities in which there are underrepresented minorities and try to galvanize not only the students but the surrounding neighborhoods, so that they can build a support system to battle the historically oppressive circumstances they have had to endure. The most salient characteristic that I got out of the GSE&IS is that it made me proud of my own identity. Prior to this program, I had moments of shame that made me be embarrassed of my culture. After [graduating from the program], I became prouder than ever of who I was, and I gained a value in that there is a beauty in my culture — as well as in every culture. Thanks to UCLA, I have taken this renewed sense of identity and passed it on to my students.