A Teacher Learns New Lessons on the Road
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Jason Kamras quickly discovered that the national audience wasn't like his classroom in Southeast Washington.
He had enjoyed a successful run with his students in Room 219 at Sousa Middle School, near Fort DuPont Park.
They laughed at his corny jokes, learned his lessons and watched their test scores rise. Then last April, he became the District's first National Teacher of the Year.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," Kamras said. "I joked that I was kind of like Miss America."
As the nation's premier pedagogue, he visited more than 40 states and two continents to encourage teachers to work beyond inequalities in urban public schools. But it was a tough audience.
At first, he said, he felt disconnected from the crowds he was supposed to inspire. Jokes he thought were knee-slapping received faint chuckles. Messages he thought would get standing ovations got pitter-patters of applause.
Between speeches, in his hotel room, he'd grade his performance on a scale of 1 to 5. In the beginning, he gave himself lots of 3s. But he worked to improve.
By June 1 this year, at event No. 130, his words routinely brought people to tears. He even inspired retired teachers to return to the classroom, said Ernest Fleishman, senior vice president of Scholastic Inc., the educational publishing company that sponsors the award.
This fall, Kamras returns to his classroom with a redefined purpose, a new magic trick and a maxim that resonates with youths and adults alike: Even a teacher never stops learning.
Fresh from Princeton University, Kamras started teaching at Sousa in 1996. He came as a member of Teach for America, a program placing college graduates in schools in low-income communities for two years.
Kamras loved teaching math at Sousa. He's been there ever since, except for a year's leave in 1999 to get a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
What made Kamras stand out was his innovation in the classroom, said Suriya Douglas Williams, who taught reading at Sousa between 2001 and 2003.