Farewell to an Educational Icon

This past week, the world of education lost a true giant. Jaime Escalante was one of the world’s greatest and most famous teachers, earning countless accolades and becoming the subject of an Academy Award nominate film: Stand and Deliver — a favorite movie of teachers everywhere.

Escalante began his teaching career with modest expectations from his district and community; a math teacher in an impoverished neighborhood of East Los Angeles, his primary task was simply to get his students out of the hallway and into the classroom, where they couldn’t cause as much trouble. Saddened by these mediocre expectations for students, Escalante frequently butted heads with his administration, steadfast in his belief that students would rise to meet his lofty expectations for them if he were allowed to drive them to do so.

To say that Escalante’s primary contribution to education was a belief that all students can learn and succeed would be a gross understatement. He was a gifted educator in all facets, creating real-world analogies to make abstract concepts seem concrete, using humor and pageantry to make difficult or mundane topics seem interesting, and relying on his sheer will and determination to offer each student as much after-school attention as he needed to be successful. Ultimately, however, it was, indeed, Escalante’s belief in his students — manifested in his effort and energy to create truly teachable moments at each opportunity — that won their belief in themselves and their corresponding desire — or “ganas,” as Escalante said repeatedly in Spanish — to affirm their teacher’s confidence in them. “If he wants to teach us that bad,” one student famously said of him, “we can learn.”

Escalante’s students did more than simply justify their teacher’s lofty expectations. They set the ultimate standard for academic excellence, turning a written-off school (officials at the Advanced Placement board initially questioned the passing scores of Escalante’s first wave of AP Calculus students) into a leader in higher learning — at its peak, Garfield High had a whopping 73 students pass the AP Calculus AB exam, up, well, 73 students from just a few years prior. The school philosophy, once “don’t cause trouble” became “calculus does not need to be made easy — it’s easy already.”

Jaime Escalante, who died Tuesday at the age of 79, remains an inspiration to teachers around the world, as we all aspire to blend Escalante’s energy, effort, creativity, and belief in our students to spur on our students to higher success. Escalante wouldn’t be comfortable with the praise he has received this week, truly believing in his heart that any good teacher would do the same as he did out of responsibility to students. We hope we can live up to that, Jaime, and we know that you believe in our ability to do it.