Woman who never intended to teach now praised as California Teacher of the Year

May 22, 2013
I'Asha Warfield, California's 2013 Teacher of the Year, at Frick Middle School, Oakland Unified School District. (Photo by Kathryn Baron).

I’Asha Warfield, California’s 2013 Teacher of the Year, at Frick Middle School in Oakland. Credit: Kathryn Baron/EdSource Today

California’s Teacher of the Year never considered a career in teaching, not as a child, not in high school and not in college – not even when she was accepted into Teach For America after graduating from Occidental College in 1999.

“To be perfectly candid, I was similar to other TFA teachers. I thought I would teach for two years and then leave teaching and go to grad school in who knows what,” laughed I’Asha Warfield in her office off the library at Frick Middle School in Oakland Unified School District, where she’s been an English teacher since TFA sent her there 13 years ago.

Yet last month, Warfield found herself at the White House being recognized for her contribution to the profession she never thought she’d stay in. She, along with Teachers of the Year from every state – as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Department of Defense schools – gathered behind President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on April 23 as he introduced the National Teachers of the Year for 2013. Warfield stood in the second row, off to the right of the president, her smile as wide and genuine as it always is.

Since the Teacher of the Year program was started 61 years ago by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit leadership and advocacy organization for officials who head state education departments, seven California teachers have received the top honor, including one in the first year of the program in 1952 and again last year. Those selected state Teacher of the Year are eligible for the national Teacher of the Year title; the selected winner then spends the next year traveling the world as an advocate for the teaching profession.

California’s Teacher of the Year I’Asha Warfield (far left, in black blouse and pink jacket) at the White House with President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other state Teachers of the Year on April 23. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

A win for Frick

Even though she wasn’t chosen for the national spot – that honor went to Jeff Charbonneau, a high school chemistry teacher from Zillah, Wash. – Warfield sees her selection as California Teacher of the Year as a win for Frick Middle School. For years it was the place where no Oakland parents wanted to send their children because it was known for low test scores and a dangerous campus. Her aunts and uncles had attended the school and told her when she was placed there by TFA to “go home” to southern California, where she grew up. But over the past half dozen years, she said the campus has been undergoing a significant and systematic shift in school climate and focus.

“When you hear the name Frick in Oakland, you think, ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m not sending my child there,’ because of the former reputation,” Warfield said. “And so that’s what makes this award exciting, because then it shines a positive light on a school that has had a bad reputation in the past.”

When she arrived at Frick in 2000, its Academic Performance Index, the state measure of a school’s achievement, was 465 on a scale where 800 is the minimum goal. Since then, albeit with a few minor bumps, it’s been on a fairly constant upward trajectory, raising its score to 645 last year. On the nonprofit parent information website GreatSchools.org, Frick receives almost all positive reviews.

Frick Principal Jerome Gourdine attributes much of the successful transformation to Warfield, who, he says, is a gifted teacher of students and other teachers. Gourdine, who manages to present the dual demeanor of being simultaneously unassuming and in control, cites one example, since picked up by other teachers, of how Warfield sets the tone in her classroom.

“She put a sign on the clock, ‘Our time.’ You enter this room, it’s our time, there’s no need to look at the clock because believe me you’re going to be working, you’re going to be learning from the minute you step in here to the minute you leave,” Gourdine said.

“Every minute has a purpose, every minute has a reason.”

When Warfield was named California Teacher of the Year in November 2012, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson specifically cited her use of student reflections as a way to make sure that children understand the material or, if they don’t get it, to figure out where they need help.

“Every single day we write learning targets of what we’re going to learn that day, and at the end of each period they write whether or not they’ve gotten it,” Warfield said in a video made after she was selected as Alameda County Teacher of the Year in 2012.

The honors started coming two years ago, after 75 percent of Warfield’s students scored proficient on the writing portion of the state’s standardized test. Gourdine said there’s no other subject matter at Frick where students even approached that number for proficiency.

In the Socratic seminars and debates she uses to help teach critical thinking and debate skills, Warfield draws from hot topics of the day that students are exposed to when watching TV or listening to adult conversations. Last fall, when Proposition 34, an initiative to end the death penalty in California, was on the November ballot, Warfield had her students debate the issue.

Two teams sat across from each other at a long table, with other students seated just behind them evaluating the arguments. Each student had to be prepared to debate both sides of the issue.

“The reason why we should have the death penalty is because a serious crime deserves a serious punishment,” a young girl said in a barely audible voice as she leaned over her notes and shyly covered part of her face with her right hand.

“I would like to counter what she said,” responded a ponytailed girl on the other side. “It is barbaric and violates the cruel and unusual clause in the Bill of Rights.”

Their arguments are sophisticated, as is the respectful way the students engage with each other. It’s especially impressive considering these are 12-year-olds. Students raise issues of mental competence, deterrence and race discrimination. Warfield said she selects topics that are relevant to her students’ world, without making assumptions about that world, so they’ll be more engaged in learning.

Breathing lessons

Teaching wasn’t always this much fun for Warfield. Middle school is a fearsome time for students and some teachers won’t touch it. Volumes have been written about the perils of these years.

The first year was tough. She had kids fighting and throwing books at each other and not paying attention. For the 20-something recent graduate of Occidental College, it felt as if she’d been slammed to the ground and had the air knocked out of her.

“It wasn’t the intellectual challenge that was causing me so much anxiety, it was just emotional,” said Warfield, now 36.

Some nights she’d go to her grandmother’s house and crawl in bed with her for comfort. Other times relief came from music. “I’d just go home and lie flat on the floor and play Toni Braxton’s Breathe Again – on repeat.”

It would have been easy to leave when her two TFA years were over, but Gourdine gave her some advice that changed her perspective. “He told me that if I continued to try to make sanity out of middle school thought processes that I was going to drive myself crazy,” Warfield recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘You could give them ice cream every single day and they’ll complain about the flavor.’”

That’s when Warfield learned to say the word that comes so easily and so early to children: “No.”

From then on Warfield ruled the classroom. She got a reputation, and she was glad. “Because then it’s like, ‘Oh, my sister had her! And she’s not going to accept that as an excuse, so you need to do it.’”

Shawn Stith, an eighth grade student who had Warfield as a teacher last year, praised her at a school-wide panel on the subject of what quality teaching looks like. “I said that she doesn’t give up on you and she sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself and she’s a really great teacher.” The 14-year-old said he never liked to write, but Warfield pushed students like him to keep at it. “Everybody will always ask, ‘What’s your favorite subject?'” he said. “And I always say math, but now I can finally say English, because I like English now, with her teaching.”

“She doesn’t give up on you,” said Shawn Stith, 14, an 8th grade student at Frick Middle School and former student of I’Asha Warfield. Credit: Kathryn Baron/EdSource Today.

A new role

As much as students benefited from Warfield’s skill and passion, Gourdine saw her value to teachers, too. At the start of the 2012-13 academic year, he took her out of the classroom, at least out of her classroom, and made her a coach to work with other teachers at Frick. She observes classes, models lessons and, once a week, holds professional development sessions with all the teachers after school in the library.

“You always feel that you can come and talk to her and that she will understand you and she will give you suggestions and not be judgmental,” said Elsa Varela, who teaches English, history and reading.

That’s also her approach when doing classroom observations, which are now part of her new position. Once, while observing a new teacher she was mentoring, Warfield took detailed notes about what she saw in class, including a high number of uninterested students.

Afterward when the teacher told her he thought there had been a great conversation in the class, she responded, “Three students were talking, 25 percent of the class was checked out, five had their heads down. This is the reality of what you just saw as a conversation. So now what can we do structurally to change it?”

This is how Warfield believes teachers should be evaluated, not based on a test. Teachers aren’t opposed to being evaluated, she argues, they just don’t like the tools being used to do it.

But Warfield isn’t sure she wants coaching to be a permanent position and is giving herself another year to figure it out. “I’m not sure if this is my lane,” she explained. “I think I may be more effective in the classroom.”

Telling her students’ story

One of Warfield’s favorite parts of being Teacher of the Year was attending seminars with the other state winners. Teachers don’t often get to spend that much time together sharing experiences and strategies. But it was at one of these seminars, in Arizona, that she also realized how big the gap is between middle- and high-wealth schools and 99.5 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch.

In the East Oakland neighborhood where Frick is located, many children have seen violence, have family members who were victims of violence or have been victims themselves. In summer 2010, a 14-year-old boy, a track star who had just graduated from Frick, was shot to death while walking at night with a friend.

While in Arizona, Warfield realized that her students are more than their environment and circumstances and telling their story as one of succeeding despite all their challenges can be detrimental.

She doesn’t want people to view them as a “poor us” charity case that needs help. “Our kids need to be educated because they’re assets. Our nation needs their thoughts and needs their innovation, just like any other students,” Warfield said. “So when I tell their story it can’t just stop at, ‘Oh, we work really hard and we’re going to make it through.’ They’re students in the United States who deserve a quality education and we need them to have a quality education.”

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