During the hiring interview the principal asked me the most important question for any teacher who wants to excel in the classroom. She asked me, “Will you love your students?”
That’s the big issue in teaching; teachers who love the kids can’t help but operate in the child-centered style that is most essential to effective learning. As a public school teacher, my most important core value is to unconditionally love my students. I’ll work with them right up to the last day in order to pull them across the finish line. It’s true that they should have done their work. They should have studied. But if I love them, will I be content simply to leave them to drown? Grace, which means giving something that isn’t deserved, is an essential quality in every relationship.
Some of my students, of course, are easier to love than others. Last year one student had a particularly bad attitude. He was not doing the assignments and treated me in a rude manner. Even though he was being difficult, I did everything I could to see him graduate and worked diligently for two weeks to make sure that he could get his diploma. When he passed me on the way out the door following graduation, I shook his hand firmly, looked him in the eye, and said, “In the future don’t be so hard to love.”
I’ve been a California teacher since 1990 when I taught junior high classes in St. Agnes Catholic School in Concord. The hiring principal, Sister Ingrid, was a nun from the same Sisters of St. Joseph religious order that had staffed St. Benedict Joseph Labre Catholic grammar school that I had attended while growing up in Queens, New York. I was impressed by the fact that Sister Ingrid knew the names of every one of my 41 students. It was my first teaching job, and I learned more than my students did. The most intense lesson I learned was that teaching junior high kids wasn’t easy. Some of the kids aren’t very loveable.
After a year I had an opportunity to return to New York and attend to a business that I was doing on the side. I got an offer to teach junior high in a small Catholic school called St. Peter’s that was near the United States Military Academy at West Point. I have a background in economics and am an entrepreneur as well as a teacher. The Internet was just becoming important and I got an idea to do a website that would provide a single go-to source for obtaining a copy of the current corporate report of every publically traded company in the United States. At the beginning I had no idea how big a mouthful I had bitten off. It was an unpleasant shock to realize that there were more than 10,000 companies. However, it was a pleasant shock when I mailed 10,000 copies of a simple letter asking each of them for a copy of their current report and got 10,000 replies. I secured some funding and built a website.
My investors insisted that I move to California so I set up company headquarters in Walnut Creek and bought a house in Clayton. Corpreports.com went live. We got some good press through an article called “The Missing Link to Public Companies” that was published in a business journal. I gave some of my former students their first opportunity in the world of business. The value of my founding stock peaked at an incredible level and I was able to provide generous gifts of company shares to the schools that had enriched my life.
I was having fun. After a couple years, however, the board of directors sold us in exchange for stock in another company. The so-called dot.com bomb went off and the value of my stock was gone with the wind. For smart people, however, the Internet is a better way of making money than losing it. My son has started a company, for example; two of my students have income generating webpages.
In 2000 I got a job teaching Freshman Math, Sophomore English, Junior History, and Senior Economics at De La Salle High. I started an Economics Club and served as advisor for the ski club and for the Model United Nations team. One of my basic principles of classroom effectiveness is that the teacher cannot ever be bored but must be excited about the lesson materials and fully engaged with the students. I play music in my classrooms and do whatever I can to let the students know that I enjoy being with them and, in return, most of them enjoy being in the classroom with me. This is no act on my part. I enjoy every minute of classroom instruction.
In 2005 I met Tim Halloran at a job fair. Tim was the Liberty High principal at the time. I guess we hit it off well because, even though the subject of applying for a job never came up, Tim called me and invited me to come for an interview and then made me a job offer that I couldn’t refuse. I planned to remain at Liberty for ten years. That was 12 years ago and I’m still here. The Liberty High School District has been absolutely wonderful.
The students are wonderful people to be around, as well. De La Salle is a Catholic school so, of course, there are prayers and acknowledgement of the presence of God that are absent from the hallways and classrooms at Liberty. However, the two cultures are less different than you might suppose. De La Salle teachers and students perform a lot of community service for the express purpose of serving God. But the teachers and students at Liberty serve the community in various ways out of feelings of kindness and gratitude. The results are not too different. Liberty students don’t have formal times of prayer, but when I hand out a tough quiz, I see a lot of mouths moving silently and I don’t think they are reciting song lyrics.
I practice unusual and sometimes offbeat activities designed to provoke the energies that make learning effective as well as interesting. For the past decade I have abandoned a live Christmas tree at some public point on the campus. I call it the “Whatever” tree. I exercise no control over the experiment’s outcome. Students will typically set the tree up and might even add decorations. However, it might also end up in some bathroom. One year someone burned it. Another year it was driven around for a week in the back of someone’s pickup. Last year it disappeared following the first day.
The “Whatever” tree project provides a real-world illustration in the nature of property rights. Until someone takes ownership of the tree, it will remain abandoned and derelict. But ownership brings a sense of commitment and responsibility. “This is now my tree.” And the subsequent, “This is what I plan to do with my tree.” I extend the lesson to the real-life situation of the students. They must take ownership of the classroom. “This is my room.” And “This is my lesson.” The sense of commitment and obligation that comes with ownership makes the classroom come alive.
Diversity is a core value in my classroom and not a burden. I play Hispanic music every Wednesday, prominently display a Mexican flag on a classroom wall, play short clips from Spanish news stations, and make Spanish books and magazines freely available for any interested student. The walls of my classroom are decorated with flags from many nations. The eyes of a student who came into my classroom for testing lit up when he saw the flag of his native Brazil. But then he told me it was upside-down, so I quickly fixed it.
My classroom’s back wall is covered with a collage that displays the results of a long-term project. Students were assigned to assemble elements to be used in a personal “My America” poster. The “My America” pieces merged in a gigantic synergy to form a sprawling “Our America” collage.
I’ve sometimes appeared on political talk shows and will deliberately use key terms that are appropriate to our classroom lessons and bring back to class some important quotes that came out of the interview.
During the recent election year, students were given popsicle sticks with the instruction to paint each of them red, white, or blue. They took turns, two at a time, painting the popsicle sticks. After the project was completed, I organized the sticks into a giant 2.5’ x 3.5’ American flag, which each student signed. The collaborative art piece is appropriately called “We the people.”
I tell my students to aim high. I remind them that, although 60 percent is a passing grade in school, they should aim for 100 percent in their future lives. I tell them to be the best husband or wife they can be; the best dad or mom; the best employer or employee; the best in their profession. I practice what I preach about that 100 percent. Students know that Mr. Lopez is in his classroom at least two hours after the end of the school day and most Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. prepared to give them help with any project.
I have three keys to instructional excellence in the classroom. First, I make the kids feel welcome. I shake their hands when they enter the classroom and again when they leave. Secondly, when they walk out of the classroom they will have a firm answer to anyone who asked them what they learned. Thirdly, I want them to be more able to engage in critical thinking than when they came into the classroom. Learning to actually think is the greatest lesson of all.
I injured my leg a couple years ago and doctors replaced the Achilles tendon and heel in my left foot with parts that were harvested from a cadaver. I spent nearly a year on crutches and in a wheelchair but never missed a class and was always on time. The fact that I’m walking because I have some dead guy’s heel turned into a spiritual wake-up call. I was in bed for six weeks during recovery but refused to feel bad. I don’t care that I can never be able to run again. I will accept life the way it is and play the cards I’m dealt. Life is good.
I’m going to Spain in three years. When this freshman class graduates and leaves, I’m going to leave with them. I’ll have 20 years of teaching high school at that point. I might do some teaching; engage in some business; spend time with my family. It will be good. I’ll make sure it’s all good!
During four generations, the Lopez family has made amazing strides. Grandpa never spent a single day in a classroom. Dad dropped out of high school. I finished college, and my son Nicolas has graduated with his masters degree. Not only has he started commercial websites, but he has developed remarkable skills as a photographer. In 2015 he visited the country of his forebears, and compiled a commercial quality book with high quality photographs of cities and villages in Spain, including the small village of Alhama de Almeria where the Lopez family has lived since 1575.
Our nuclear family is just part of the full story of our branch of Lopez. Grandpa had six children. I have 18 cousins that are scattered across the country. Only God knows how many first-cousins-once-removed I have. And, of course, the first-cousins-twice-removed are starting to come along. My own branch of the Lopez family has now grown into a great wave of humanity — many or most of them, like my son Nicolas, are professionals — entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers, and soldiers. Others are surely participating in trades or professions that I can’t imagine.
The lesson that comes from this remarkable story is that you can change the world by simply plugging away and doing your best. Anyone writing a chronology of Grandpa’s life would imagine that his life never amounted to much. However, by simply remaining faithful to his employers and to his family, Grandpa planted seeds that have since grown into an immeasurably large mass of humanity.
This is what America is all about; this is the American dream.