Teacher Spotlight: Manuel Albert on why he cares about motivating male high school students of color and how mentoring can be a game changer
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 10, 2020
Over the next several weeks, LA School Report will be publishing stories reported and written before the coronavirus pandemic. Their publication was sidelined when schools across the country abruptly closed, but we are sharing them now because the information and innovations they highlight remain relevant to our understanding of education.
This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.
Manuel “Manny” Albert III experienced what it was like living in two very different environments early on in his life when his family moved from a disadvantaged community in South Central Los Angeles to the more affluent city of Cerritos, 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
“My parents and my sisters and I, we still went to South Central on weekends, family events, church, and it was like living in two different worlds,” Albert said. “It was a completely different demographic, culturally, just everything.”
He attended LAUSD schools in his early school years, but when he began attending public schools in Cerritos, a city where the majority of the population is Asian, he saw “dramatic” differences.
Once he graduated from high school, he enrolled in a six-year doctorate in pharmacy program, obtained his license and worked as a pharmacist for 10 years in New York City and New Jersey. But he returned to South Central Los Angeles often for the holidays and family celebrations.
“Talking to my cousins and hearing about my nephews growing up, they told me that the schools that they were in in the neighborhood were not getting better and, in fact, were getting worse,” Albert said. That motivated him to enter the teaching profession.
“I would come home and see and hear all these stories about what’s going on in classrooms, what’s going on with my own relatives concerning their careers, and it really provoked me to really think about, ‘Am I doing professionally what I can do to help my family? But also even at a bigger scale, to help my community?’”
In 2015, Albert joined Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income schools across the country. He started teaching STEM at Bloomfield High School, part of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter schools network, in Southeast L.A., where he is in his fifth year as a teacher.
Albert said he has plans to pursue an administrative or leadership position in education because he believes he can have a bigger impact on fixing some of the things that need to be changed in the public education system in California: assessment metrics, lack of community partnerships and the need for a greater focus on social-emotional learning.
LA School Report asked Albert about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for the 2019-20 school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to teach at the high school level?
I was like initially, well maybe I can teach at the college level. Then when I thought about it further, I was like, well, if I teach at the college level and people that are coming from my community end up being my students, just the fact that they’ve made it to college is a huge deal. They’ve already overcome some huge major barriers. I want to target the ones that aren’t able to even make it to college, based on the barriers that they’re facing within the schooling system, within their community and to be able to help really move the needle in order to be able to do it in that manner. When I realized where it was I wanted my focus to be in order to change my community, then it became clear that in order for me to move the needle, I needed to teach at the high school level. Because from my experience, from hearing from my family members, and just what I was seeing in my old community, that was the area that it seemed at the time was failing my community the most.
What have you found in common with your students?
I think for me the biggest commonality that I share with them is that there is a huge need for students, especially African-American and Latino males, to receive motivation. As much as we purport to do our best, which we do as teachers, to revise curriculum, create curriculum, and to teach the materials that the state of California requires, there’s an intangible, almost critical need for motivation to also be built into the character of whoever the teacher is — male, female, whatever ethnicity — in front of the kids. I think that all kids, including me growing up, need motivation in order to either remind themselves of how strong they are and that they can do it, whether it’s an older student or a younger student, that regardless of whatever situation or your socioeconomic status, your immigration or citizenship status, that this is an opportunity that you have the most control over, especially being under the age of 18.
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What do you think are the main challenges your students face in school and in their communities and what do you do to support them?
For so many of my students, who are coming from families who are immigrating to this country, they’re being first-generation or trying to navigate through the citizenship process and the immigration process, which now that I know more about it is just extremely difficult to navigate through under the best circumstances. Then you have family members that are forced to move frequently as well. Huntington Park has a very transient population as well. So there are all these additional variables that make it cloudy sometimes for students, who are used to, unfortunately, dealing with trauma on a daily basis, to be reminded that there is motivation that’s available that’s within each of us, but sometimes you need people to help stir it and sometimes you need people to help build it.
Just having someone, or a group of people, whether it’s me, whether it’s a group of teachers, and all of the teachers at our school, we were placed in a situation where we all truly believe that about our students because it first starts with caring. Part of that caring is mentorship. A lot of teachers balk at the idea of mentorship, because technically as a teacher you’re not trained to be a mentor. It’s not part of your requirements in terms of your job description. And I get that, but we’re in a situation, especially in low-income urban areas, where mentorship is such a powerful tool. Even if it’s just something like a student seeing you at their games or having dinner with a student’s family to show that you’re invested, not just in them as a student at your school, but them as a person and what it is they’re capable of becoming. I think that’s a game-changer for a lot of students at our school, and especially our young Latino males. Our school is 99 percent Latino students.
Do you have enough support in your school or room to be innovative or do the things you need to do in the classroom to serve your students better?
The answer is a resounding yes. I really think that’s because we have a principal who truly stands behind that. Our principal would tell you that when she was the same age as our students, she literally had teachers tell her, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t really need to learn that. You just need to sit back in the back of the classroom and we’ll just make sure that as long as you’re not disruptive, then we’ll pass you with a C.’ Even now when she talks about it to this day, you can see in her mind that she’s reminded of how she felt as a student, as a person, as a woman, as an immigrant coming from an immigrant family of people who came to this country. And it’s real. So for us, one of the great things is that she allows us, whether it’s by departments or in our individual classrooms, to really figure out for ourselves what works best in our opinion for our students.
I’m one of the three teachers that’s currently on the executive board for the school. I’ve been on the executive board for going on almost five years now. So even at the highest level in terms of budget, in terms of LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) and LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) funding, we’ve had situations where we can say, ‘We need to hire a full-time psychologist. We need to hire another counselor because we noticed that there’s a lot of trauma that, as much as we can try to address it during class instructional time, you just can’t because you’re also instructing students based on a curriculum that you want them to learn to get them prepared for college and beyond.’
What kind of challenges do you currently face as an educator or what kind of issues in the public education system do you think need to be addressed?
If I had to narrow it down to three things, I’d say funding at the federal and state level is very heavily weighed on math and English scores. There are a lot of metrics that are just, unfortunately, not taking into consideration, that are going to be frustrating points for a lot of teachers, administrators, policymakers, all the way up the food chain. So I feel like number one, being able to effectively compare based on metrics coming from either state or legislative levels are always going to be a challenge until we really begin to have the true conversations about what really makes a school effective and what are all the components outside of the more traditional attendance rates and test scores on a standardized level.
Number two, I would say one of the things I think that is failing almost all public schools is a lack of community partnerships. A lot of schools are very bent on, ‘We need more money, We need more money,’ which is true. I will also argue that education from a public perspective is still drastically underfunded. But there’s also a great opportunity for communities, no matter what community you live in, to be more connected to the schools in order to provide more opportunities, whether it’s internships, whether it’s actual work experience, or whether it’s just plain exposure to either jobs or the careers that are available within that area.
And then the third component, I feel like that is failed, unfortunately, is the socio-emotional learning piece. There are so many schools that really, strictly based on funding, don’t have the resources in order to incorporate effective socio-emotional learning skills and personnel into the school workplace in order to help serve students that are walking around with all of this heavy trauma, that can’t even begin to process what’s being taught in the classroom until the trauma portion of their lives that they deal with on a day-to-day basis at home is dealt with.
I think if we attack those three, I feel like the world of education will be in a much better place. And there are many other things that could be mentioned, but I feel like in my heart as an educator, and as a person who’s been doing this now for going on five years, those are the things that I constantly see on a day-to-day basis that are things that I would want to change.
What do you think parents can do better to support teachers?
I would say just by following up with even their children on things like assignments that have recently been assigned. One of our big pushes was whenever we have a parent forum, one of the big things we do is at our school we provide the parents with their own login username and passwords to PowerTeacher, which is a tool where we house all of the grades for all students. So not only is it students being able to check their grades, but really empowering parents to be able to see based on labels, based on our numbering system, what assignments have been assigned that maybe are missing, meaning the student hasn’t turned it in, and what are the assignments that maybe have been turned in late, versus assignments that maybe were turned in on time and maybe students just didn’t do as well as they wanted to.
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A lot of parents either struggle with speaking English or are intimidated by a group of teachers who all speak English only. Or in addition to that, they’re working two jobs, or working three jobs, or they’re dealing with multiple children that they have, and so it’s not as if they don’t want to be more involved directly with teachers. But by empowering them to just give them the tools to check whatever is happening with their son or with their daughter, it helps bridge the conversation so that in the event that the teacher does want to message us, email us, or call us directly here at the school, that it creates a more comfortable environment where now they’re more knowledgeable. Now they know either what to ask or they know what it is that their son or daughter needs to do to improve academically … having a conversation with them so that your son or daughter can also learn how to become more accountable.
Being a TFA corps member, do you plan to continue teaching?
The Teach for America contract, in collaboration with the AmeriCorps Grant, requires that all Teach for America corps members stay at their school site that has been designated for a two-year term. I came in in 2015, my contract and term with TFA ended in 2017 and I’ve been here ever since. For me, I love teaching and one of the great awesome things about our school is every TFA corps member that has come through our school has stayed after their two-year commitment. TFA has been criticized on both sides of the fence. They’ve been criticized because teachers come in and they leave. They’ve been criticized for teachers coming in and supposedly not being as trained or dedicated as teachers who’ve gone through a more traditional credentialing program. And I understand the criticism from both sides.
One of the things I’ve also been able to do within TFA is bringing those concerns so that we can change the program for Los Angeles to make it so that teachers are coming in being as prepared as possible based on them moving into this new career of teaching. That’s been my angle, but I also feel like as an educator, once I started teaching, I understood that although I love teaching, that my focus shifted to being able to go from impacting students that were in my class to wanting to impact students that were in multiple classrooms across multiple school sites.
Would you like to pursue other paths in education?
I was able to do a fellowship through LAUSD with Nick Melvoin in Board District 4, and what I learned from that was there are all these major decisions that are impacting millions of students that I wanted to be a part of, to be able to positively impact their lives and their communities outside of just my immediate community at my school site. I want to be able to influence them for the betterment of the community, many other communities and many other students as a result. So this year, I am planning on taking the CPACE (California Preliminary Administrative Credential Examination)exam so that I can become an administrator at some point in the near future with the hopes of being able to potentially be a superintendent, or work at the district office, or be in a position to where I’m able to influence either policy and/or instruction at a larger scale.
I also decided to go back to school to get my doctorate in education and so I’ll be finishing my doctorate in the education program at USC in 2021. What I desire to do now is to take the experiences that I’ve had as a teacher and now use them to expand that knowledge, that insight, that perspective into a larger arena.
What is your main goal or goals for this school year?
As a teacher, I want to increase the percentage of my students turning in quality work on time. And so one of my individual goals for my classrooms is I want to raise my classwork and homework being turned in, their on-time percentage, to 85 percent by the end of the year. So we started out the semester at 65 percent, we’re now at 72 percent going into now almost the end of February. So we’re slowly climbing.
As part of that initiative, I’ve become more proactive in sending out notifications to parents. Also, increasing my frequency of calling parents. So, I try to call at least 30 parents a week to let them know, give them updates on their kids, because parents like to hear about how their children are doing, especially for those children who are struggling the most with turning in their work. Those are the ones that I typically target first and so far, it’s working.
Number two, trying to get students involved more with major decisions that are happening with the school. So one of the recent changes that we’ve had is we’ve had a reconfiguration of our executive board where now we have two students who are represented on the board who have just as much power as we as board members do. So really encouraging the students to speak up and just speak their mind, so really trying to empower students to have a stronger voice and to be more comfortable being able to understand that their voice matters.
And then I think the third thing that I would say that I’m focused on is really trying to get students, especially seniors, to hone in on their ability to become critical analyzers. So taking information that we’re seeing that’s coming from anywhere — news sources, newspapers, information that we’re seeing that’s coming from people making statements. … So really trying to get the seniors, especially, to think outside of the box. They’re very, unfortunately, accustomed to taking things at face value, which is good, but being able to help them read between the lines and to understand everything that is being said or everything that they’re reading, whether it’s a text, whether it’s information that they’re trying to craft or having to put together for a debate that we’re having in our class. But being able to really hone those skills in order to make them successful after they leave us and go on to college next year.