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'An Average Guy' Excels At Teaching Students AP Calculus


Sorry to bring back what could be terrifying memories, but do you remember high school calculus class? Maybe you loved your teacher, like I did. Maybe you lived in fear. Well, a teacher named Anthony Yom has been trying to make calculus less scary. And his students at Lincoln High, a public school in Los Angeles, have responded. For the last three years, all of his students passed the AP Calculus exam. One got a perfect score. There were only 12 perfect scores worldwide. But when I spoke to Mr. Yom, he took us back to his first year of teaching, when two of his students did not pass the AP exam.

ANTHONY YOM: That really hurt me because I just felt terrible. I just felt like had they had another teacher, maybe they would have passed. So at that point I made a promise to myself that I'm going to do everything to make sure that these kids pass.

GREENE: So those two students who didn't pass junior year, did they pass senior year after having your class?

YOM: You know what, I do have to tell you this. I do still keep in touch with these kids. They went off to college - great colleges. And they took calculus again. And they did very well.

GREENE: Well, there you go. I don't think you need to feel guilty.

YOM: Yeah, but, you know, it's just - I've never experienced that kind of feeling, you know, before. And I think it definitely gave me a good motivation to work harder for students.

GREENE: It sounds like you really love your students and care about their success.

YOM: Definitely. I mean, isn't that what teachers are supposed to do? I get that question a lot of the times, but, I mean, that's why I chose this job.

GREENE: There's a movie that keeps coming to mind, "Stand And Deliver," which was based on - wait for it - an LA calculus teacher, you know, who taught in a pretty tough school and got many of his students to pass the AP exam. Have you seen the movie? Do you like it? Do you feel a connection to it?

YOM: Well, first of all, growing up in LA, especially attending high school, they play that movie in classrooms. So yes, I do really enjoy the movie. But I don't think I'm the same caliber as Mr. Jaime Escalante.

GREENE: Why not?

YOM: Because the dude is a legend. And I'm just an average guy who's trying to do his job. And yes, I try my best. But I don't think I'm anywhere near him.

GREENE: Well, you call yourself an average guy, but your students are doing some extraordinary things, I mean, with the numbers passing calculus. I mean, there's got to be some sort of secret that you could pass on for other teachers.

YOM: Well, before you teach math, you just have to get to know them. You have to tailor the lesson so that it's relevant to the kids. It could be as simple as just even using their name in the word problem. So, David, you know Valentine's Day is coming up, right?


YOM: So there you're given a large poster board, and your job is to make a box. The more flowers you can put into this box, the more love you're going to get. How would you cut this poster board so you could put more flowers into this box? It's this kind of stuff that makes the lesson a little less dry.

GREENE: I might be calling you on February 13 to figure out how to maximize the number of flowers that I can get into a box to pass it on (laughter). Mr. Yom, congratulations on your students' success. And it's just really nice talking to you and hearing about all of this.

YOM: Thank you so much. And I just wanted to tell you one thing.


YOM: Sometimes I feel really guilty because I feel like I'm taking recognition from all these great teachers around the nation. And I just wanted the listeners to know that I'm just an average guy. But I became who I am because I had great teachers. And we if we could start recognizing good teachers and give them a little more energy, I think we could definitely change the game in the education.

GREENE: Anthony Yom teaches calculus at Lincoln High in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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