As an immigrant student at Palisades High School, Anthony Yom, who was born in Korea, did not start out speaking English well, although he excelled in the universal language of math.
“I was always afraid to ask questions because the class was moving at such a fast pace,” Yom recalls of his high school calculus class. “Everyone was so focused, and we never interacted with the teacher. It was like we were competing against each other.”
Fortunately, Yom and a couple of classmates began studying together at night and working as a team to tackle challenging math problems. That planted a seed for his future career and collaborative style of teaching algebra and calculus at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.
“Spending time with friends and the joy of solving one problem after spending 30 or 40 minutes on it — that’s where I get the teamwork from. I know what kids are capable of if they help each other,” says Yom, who received two master’s degrees from UCLA after graduating from the Teacher Education Program and Principal Leadership Institute at Center X in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSEIS).
Yom, 35, recently became the subject of a Los Angeles Times column by Steve Lopez when a student in his calculus class, Cedrick Argueta, became one of 12 students worldwide to answer all the questions on the College Board’s AP calculus exam correctly. His achievement made headlines nationwide when President Obama tweeted Argueta and invited him to attend the next White House Science Fair.
Yom says that Argueta’s success is due in part to the fact that he reinforced his own skills by tutoring his peers.
“I would put Cedrick, who was obviously a standout student, in a group with kids who were struggling,” says Yom. “At that point, I wasn’t teaching calculus to him anymore — I was teaching him how to teach calculus. He came back to me and told me that it really helped him a lot.”
Yom considers every student in his class a success, no matter what score they achieve. But last year, he set a goal for his entire class to earn a 5, the highest score you can reach on the AP calculus exam; 17 out of 21 of his students reached that goal. In the previous year, 16 out of Yom’s 22 students achieved a 5.
“It is a calculus class, but I wanted to really make a team out of it,” Yom says. “How often do you see kids in a class working together? Everyone has their own little groups, but I told them, ‘For most of you to pass is not enough — I need every single one of you to pass. I have the right tools and resources; you’ve just got to put in the time.’”
And they have. "For the last three years, all my students have passed the exam, mostly with a score of 5,” Yom said. “Cedrick not only received a score of 5 but also got every single problem right in every section of the exam, which makes him special.”
When Yom first began teaching at Lincoln High 11 years ago, he found it hard to connect with his students. “I had kids literally coming in or walking out in the middle [of class],” he recalls. “It was a bit tough. At lunchtime, I would close the door and eat lunch by myself. I would never volunteer or step out of my classroom.”
During his first year as a teacher, Yom was also too busy simply teaching the lessons. He told students, “Here’s the homework — see you tomorrow.”
“I thought no one was interested in what I was doing, or that the kids were just going through the motions,” Yom says. But by the end of that year, his students were telling him, “Today was okay” and “Mr. Yom, you did a good job.”
Yom’s eventual acceptance by his students led him to realize that opening his door — literally — would make a significant impact.
“I started talking to the kids before and after class,” he says. “Within a few months, [my classroom] was full of kids during lunchtime and morning time, simply hanging out or asking for help. I told them, ‘I really think you can do this, and I want to help you. I’ll be here in the morning; we can stay after school.’ Not everyone took to it right away, but more and more kids understood where I was coming from.”
Around the campus, word began to spread about the teacher who could actually help them out. “Kids are really smart,” Yom says. “They know if you are approaching them with heart or [if] you’re just faking it.”
Yom credits UCLA’s Teacher Education Program (TEP) with preparing him with “a reality check on what to expect” as a teacher, and the opportunity to do his student teaching at Crenshaw High School.
“TEP’s focus is on urban schools,” he says. “I was introduced to navigating different cultures along with educational theory. I learned the differences between Hispanics and Latinos; the rich history of African-Americans. … I learned how to correctly understand their cultures and interact with them.”
Yom stays connected with his mentors at UCLA, including Jaime Park, a TEP faculty advisor who supported him during his student teaching, and Jody Priselac, GSEIS associate dean for community programs who was one of his professors.
“[My professors set] a good example of how the instructor-student relationship should be,” he says. “I was never afraid to approach them and ask any question. UCLA is very selective in its students. Being surrounded by such excellent teacher-candidates motivated me and made me think, ‘I’ve got to step up my game.’ I am who I am because of what I experienced at UCLA.”
Today, Yom gives back to his alma mater by teaching the AP readiness workshops offered to high school students by Center X during the academic year. Approximately 70 of his former students have been accepted or are currently attending UCLA. When on campus, he visits with them and introduces them to Priselac, who welcomes them and offers them advice.
“One of my most joyful moments is when my students get [accepted] into UCLA,” Yom says. “It motivates me to work harder so more kids will get into UCLA and other good schools.”
Read the complete story in Ampersand, the online journal of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.