Interview with Martha Infante, Teacher in South Central Los Angeles, CA
Martha Infante is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher in Los Angeles. As a frequent presenter in both the Gifted and Social Studies fields, Martha has trained educators nationwide and participated in international study tours to Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Finland. As a 24-year veteran of public schools, Martha became involved with education reform issues when her school was decimated by layoffs in the 2009 reduction in force. Since then, this UCLA graduate and former California Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year has blogged frequently about the impact of federal education policy on the South Central Los Angeles school community at the Don’t Forget South Central blog and at Interact, via the Accomplished Teachers Network.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher, and what did your path to teaching look like?
During college, I worked as a teacher assistant at a local elementary school. I was not thinking about a career in teaching when I first started the job, but then I saw the extremely high need for Spanish speaking educators in this predominantly African-American schools. A demographic transition was happening, and the school system was not equipped to handle it. I saw it as a call of duty.
After earning my undergraduate degree, I took advantage of a local district program for teaching credentialing. It was convenient, effective, and very practical. I still use ideas from that program in my practice.
Given the past year of teacher walkouts, the current state of teaching conditions for teachers across the nation became a big point of national conversation, though perhaps not big enough. Do you feel that teachers’ voices have been adequately centered within these conversations? If not, which perspectives might be missing?
I do feel that teachers’ voices have been captured. But our voices were captured after we reached the point of despair. I cannot imagine trying to raise a family on the wages of teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia. We work so hard to earn a college degree, and to have to work multiple jobs to stay afloat is not right. These strikes could have been averted if we respected the teaching profession.
Teachers have been vocal about teaching conditions for decades. Their pleas have been ignored. Policies were passed that cost billions of dollars only to be later found erroneous. How much money could have been saved if we had listened to teachers from the beginning?
One of the indicators of the poor state of working conditions for teachers is the often high turnover rate within the profession. Having taught in South Central LA for the past 24 years and at your previous school for 13 of those years, what have been the most critical supports you have had—either from your colleagues, school, district, or broader community?
Early in my career I found little to no support from my school. New teachers attended mandated meetings once a month which were mostly administrative-based, like how to take roll or how to issue grades. My fellow colleagues were mostly new teachers as well, so we shared ideas with each other. I found the greatest support from my local social studies council, the Southern California Social Science Association (SCSSA). They provided me with constant opportunities to deepen my content knowledge and be surrounded by knowledgeable educators. I still participate in SCSSA 24 years later.
My district mentor was as helpful as she could be with monthly visits and encouraged me to pursue National Board Certification in my 4thyear of teaching. Once I certified, I vowed to not let other new teachers feel the solitude that I did as a new teacher. I started the New Teacher Roundtable where veteran teachers would come to support newbies and lobbied for funding to provide classroom coaching to new teachers by veterans during their off-track time (this is during year-round school.) We were able to reduce almost all of the teacher turnover-unheard of, until the recession hit.
What are the supports you feel like you or your colleagues have not had and are still missing in your daily experiences as teachers?
South Central L.A. is a different world. You cannot use the same techniques in hard to staff schools as you do in more stable ones. Excellent classroom management, cultural understanding, and strong administration are minimum requirements, if you are to have a school that functions. In these schools, teachers need training on how to manage a class where 30%-50% of the students have a severe learning and/or behavioral challenges. Since the ban on suspensions means these students will be present in your class every day, regardless of the infraction, teachers need tools on how to manage this new situation.
You write that your online presence as a teacher—on Twitter and on your blog Don’t Forget South Central—was born out of a desire to provide a voice for schools in South Central LA, in light of teacher layoffs across Los Angeles Unified. What has been the power in engaging within these online networks in leveraging your voice as an advocate?
Online networking helps me to see my local district in the context of nationwide movements. For example, I realized that the push to judge schools by test scores seemed to be a part of a larger pattern by private entities to discredit schools. Why would this be a goal? Because when schools are discredited, it is easier to justify privatizing them. This realization would not have dawned on me if I had just stayed in my classroom. By meeting educators from around the country virtually, I learned about this battle at more advanced stages. I am so grateful for California leadership that has resisted these forces.
Through my blogging, I met David Cohen, a teacher in Palo Alto High School who introduced me to key people in California education leadership. This led to positions on education commissions lead by SSPI Tom Torlakson and speaking to the Education Equity Commission called by the U.S. Department of Education. I have been able to share my experience as a classroom teacher with leaders from around the state, country, and the world and it is all thanks to online networking.
You have also had the chance to venture far beyond South Central LA to Finland this past year to conduct research on the Finnish education system as a Fulbright Scholar. What drove you to Finland, and what were you hoping to learn from their educational context?
Throughout my career I have sought to examine best practices worldwide, including in Japan and China. I find that our colleagues abroad are eager to learn from us as well, and that was certainly the case in Finland. Ironically, many ideas implemented by the Finns originated in the U.S, such as the idea of outdoor/nature-based education. While they implemented these ideas, we discarded them. And now, the Finns are one of the top performing countries academically, but more importantly, they have a deep satisfaction about life in general. It seems we in the U.S. are trying to find our soul in education. We can learn a lot from our colleagues around the world.
I wanted to learn how the Finns can do more with less seat time in school. It is complicated, but it starts with a deep respect for the teaching profession. Teachers have great autonomy to develop lessons that best meet the needs of their students. Their input is sought in areas that we can’t even comprehend in the U.S. For example, they are asked to give input into the design of new school buildings and of their individual classrooms. Each school and municipal education agency is autonomous from the national ministry of education. So while they may follow the national curriculum, there is the intellectual freedom to build a program around local needs.
My number one goal upon returning to the U.S. is to increase break time in public schools. While embedded in Finnish schools, my Finnish colleagues could not understand why our school day was so long and had such few breaks. Research indicates that after 10 minutes of direct instruction, the students’ minds have already checked out. They may look focused, but they are not retaining instruction. Why work harder when we can work smarter? Let’s give the students a chance to take a break from our high stakes education system and I believe we will watch them soar.
How, if at all, has your Fulbright research in Finland affected your approach to teaching in your classroom since coming back to the States?
My approach has changed significantly. I give my high school students more autonomy and let them be responsible for their learning. By inserting a five-minute break into the period, I find the students return refreshed and ready to continue learning. Whenever possible, we go outside to study or read. The students absolutely love this, and it is an easy way to build community within a class.
I also tend to leave my work at school and not bring it home as much as possible. I do not assign homework on the weekends and encourage students to hike, bike, or play. I follow my own advice! If we really want to be our most dynamic selves during our limited time with students, we have to mentally, physically, and spiritually train for this.
To learn more about Martha’s lessons from the Finnish context, see her Fulbright Distinguished Teacher project: Finnish Break Time and Nature: a Fulbright Project.