By: William Heuisler, History Teacher at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School
When I first started teaching, I had a naïve philosophy about education: “If I can make an impact on just one kid,” I thought, “I’ll know I’m doing something positive.” It didn’t take me long to realize there were far too many kids in need of great teachers for my goal of helping just one. I also learned that public schools in Los Angeles’ most underserved neighborhoods were nothing like I’d imagined.
It was after three years leading a class at a struggling middle school, where mediocrity and failure were commonplace, that I realized I was becoming the kind of teacher I’d always loathed: one who had stopped trying. It wasn’t the students — I still loved my kids — but rather the overall school culture that was sapping my enthusiasm. There was no common goal or shared passion across the campus, and the result was a lack of accountability and low expectations for both students and staff.
A visit almost ten years ago to Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School (ASLA) to observe a friend’s class reminded me of what was possible, and introduced me to the hardest-working and most intelligent school leaders I’d ever met. It also helped re-inspire me at a time when I was losing my drive as a teacher. ASLA needed more of them, so I applied.
The application and interview process were rigorous, including a “teach session” with the actual students I would be instructing. I’d never seen anything like it, though it made perfect sense. What better way to vet a potential teacher than to put him in front of the very students he would teach?
I prepared for that 20-minute lesson with all the excitement and dedication I’d had when I first began teaching...and I haven’t stopped since.
I joined ASLA in 2006, its third year of existence, when the first graduating class was in its junior year. It marked what may have been my only opportunity to be part of the staff who actually built a school from the ground up. Unlike my own high school, with 150 years of history and which my grandfather had attended before me, ASLA had no school culture, no traditions, no alumni, and no legacy. It was a blank slate. We were entrusted to develop it and make it special.
The other teachers and I haven’t taken the responsibility lightly: We continue to write ASLA’s history each and every day, mostly in the form of students we send off to college and into the world.
Now in my ninth year at ASLA, I’ve taken on countless leadership positions both at my school site and within Green Dot. I’ve coached sports teams, led students on college tours to the East Coast, chaperoned proms and homecomings, helped make “Spirit Week” legendary at ASLA and even — despite having no musical talent whatsoever — helped write and record our first-ever school song.
I don’t know of many schools where all that would be possible. But it’s part of what enticed me to join Green Dot all those years ago and part of what has kept me motivated and inspired ever since.
Last year, Green Dot awarded me Teacher of the Year at our annual Golden Dot Awards ceremony. It was an amazing honor, one made all the more special by the fact that so many of the people who helped me become the teacher I am today were there in the room. And while I appreciate the recognition for all that I’ve given to ASLA over the years, by no means do I believe that I am Green Dot’s best teacher. That award was earned by the entire ASLA and Green Dot community, which reinvigorated a lost teacher nine years ago.
After 12 years of teaching, the job hasn’t gotten any easier, but I still love what I do. As education continues to change and evolve, I find my current philosophy about teaching has evolved, too, best summed up by an age-old proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And there is no village I would rather be a part of than ASLA and Green Dot.