One thing I’ve learned in my years of teaching is that you can’t keep doing the same thing in class for 45 minutes. The attention spans just aren’t there. You have to shift gears to keep the kids’ attention. We do multiple activities. You might see them working in teams at lab tables. Or you might see them standing in a big group, vibrating and rotating and moving around—they’re modeling liquid changing into gas. It’s a matter of changing the style of presentation to keep them engaged.
I got into teaching because I had so many teachers who really seemed to like their work. I’ve always tried to learn from successful teachers, the ones who had a passion for it. You do have to learn right along with the kids, keep going to workshops, stay open to new ideas all the time and bring them into the classroom. And then it’s important to take the time to prepare and try them out before you do them in front of the class. Kids love it when you mess up, but it’s always better when it works right the first time.
You also have to have the confidence to lay yourself out there. I do chemistry raps. I dress up like a rapper and call myself Shorty L. The students get a kick out of it because I’m so bad it’s funny. But I want them to know that I’m not very good at some of the things they can do well. They appreciate that I’m trying to understand their world a little and make things memorable for them.
The environment in this area isn’t the most conducive to learning—or to the safety of the kids, for that matter. It can be violent. One year we had 23 homicides in Maywood. There’s a lot of gang activity. You have to deal with behavioral issues in positive, creative ways. I like to give students options: stop this now or here’s the alternative. Kicking kids out is never the answer. You don’t want them back out on the street.
Too often you hear only the negative things about a school. Some schools just don’t get the accolades they deserve. This school has so many good teachers. One of the good things about some of the awards that I’ve won is that they shine a light not just on me but on the students and other teachers, too. They’re a beacon on the whole school.
When I won the Disney award, I used the prize money to establish a book fund for students who graduated from Proviso and went on to Elmhurst College. I’ve had several students go to Elmhurst and to Professor Evans Afenya’s Summer Math and Science Academy. I’ve also had students go to M.I.T.’s summer program for minority students. One of them is now attending M.I.T. on a Gates Millennium Scholarship.
My favorite part of teaching is when former students come back to visit. It’s wonderful to hear that you’ve made a difference.
One day I got a call during my lunch hour telling me that some of my students were gathered in the school’s social room. They had a cake for me and a little plaque that said, “Thanks for all your hard work. Lid’s Kids.” It really touched my heart.
A mentor once told me that kids have the biggest B.S. detectors in the world. They have a sixth sense for phony baloney and they have a sixth sense for sincerity. They know whether or not you care about them. It’s nice to know that they think what I’m doing is a life-changer for them.