When Anthony Yom Ed.M. ’09 immigrated to Los Angeles from Korea at age 12, he struggled in school because he spoke little English. But the universal language of mathematics he understood. Not only could he solve the problems; he could explain them to others. He decided to make teaching his life’s work. But when he was assigned to a school in an underserved community, he was shocked at the students’ lack of preparation and motivation. Determined to succeed, Yom offered the students extra time with him after school and during holiday breaks if they wanted to do well. Today, he’s building a tradition of excellence, and his students want to come along.

Did math always come easily for you?

Not AP calculus. I ran into difficulty there, and I was afraid to ask questions, afraid my pronunciation would get made fun of. It seemed like everyone else knew what they were doing. But, actually, a few of my friends had a similar problem. One day, one said that if you went to the USC campus at night, you could find open classrooms. So that became our routine. We spent three to four hours there every night. Our parents dropped us off and picked us up. We taught each other. That taught me grit — how to persevere.

Why did you choose to teach?

In high school, I tutored math. Kids in the neighborhood would come to my house to ask questions. When they’d say, “Now I get it,” it gave me a very good feeling.

This is your 11th year at Abraham Lincoln High, a tough school in a tough neighborhood. What was the first year like?

Very tough. I had gone to Palisades High School [even though I lived in Koreatown], which was very different demographically, socioeconomically and culturally [from Lincoln]. Still, I had the same expectations of my students. But many were unmotivated. They weren’t used to listening to an adult. I was 24, so I had an issue with them not taking me seriously. Even my assistant principal said, “Young man, where’s your pass?” Within the first two weeks, I asked a student who was walking around the classroom to “Please be seated.” He came within inches of my face and asked, “Who do you think you are?” I said, “I am your teacher, and I’m here to do my job, and you’re not going to stop me.” After that, he would just walk out. What do I do? I had to carry on the class for the other 34 students. Eventually I got him to stay. He passed with a D, and I told him I couldn’t be more proud of him.

All I wanted to do was teach, but I couldn’t look at the students because I was looking at my notes. I didn’t know how to measure [the kids’] growth, so it seemed like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I would eat lunch by myself, like a loner, because I was so stressed out. I had colleagues, 20 other math teachers, but I didn’t even say hello. A fellow UCLA student I had known ended up in the same school, teaching biology. I would visit her classroom, and so many times she would cry. I wanted to cry with her, but somebody had to say, “It’s OK.” And I don’t like to lose.

How was the second year?

A huge improvement. I was figuring out what students needed and how I could help them. I was calling parents. I participated in school activities. I realized there were resources I could tap into. I was seeing myself improving. I knew I was making a difference.

Many of your students have excelled. What’s your secret?

By the fifth year, I realized the time I spent with them in class wasn’t enough. Some were losing interest because they couldn’t understand. I told them, “Your foundation is lacking. But it’s fixable if you have a desire to improve.” With a few kids, I met after school. After school, kids will open up to you more, and that’s what I used to build their basic skills. They knew I was going out of my way to help them, and they appreciated my offer. Teenagers are very sensitive. When I ask, “Do you get it?,” a lot of them pretend they do, but you know they don’t. I devote a lot of time to making a safe environment to ask questions, and sometimes I purposely make a mistake and let the kids catch it. I try my hardest to show the human side of me. Now they ask questions almost every day, and they know that once they clarify their confusions, the lesson flows much better.

Do you emphasize that if they do well, they will have a brighter future?

I ask them, “Why do we study?” Almost all the answers are “Because then we could go to college.” I ask, “Why do you want to go to college?” “Then we could get a good job.” It’s like they were programmed to say that. I tell them, “Even if you study hard, you might not get into the colleges you want. And even if you go to college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed.” I’m trying to accomplish more than teaching math. I want to teach them to persevere, to become a good human being who contributes to society. I want them to get every [bit of] education possible, build a good work ethic and wait for their chance to shine.

Has the school been supportive of your efforts?

Very. My AP calculus class used to be at the beginning of the day. I told [the administrators], “If you put my class at the end of the day, we could spend a little more time, and that could make a huge difference.” They went out of their way to change the whole master schedule so my class could be at the end. Small things like that have helped a lot. I am the one in the war zone fighting, but there are many people supporting me, and whenever I do the after-school session or holiday session or spring break session, the parents stop their work to drop the [students] off or pick them up. And of course I’ve gotten support from the kids who believe in me, especially when they learn that for the past three years, all my calculus students have passed the AP exam. I say, “This is what it takes to get that result. Do you want to be part of a tradition here? We’re building something special.” No kid wants to be left behind.

Are there other keys to your success?

I wear the same shoes the kids wear and the clothing brands they like. That just brings a natural common ground. And I listen to the same music. Once they trust you, then whatever you ask them to do, they’ll go the extra mile. It’s not about the scores all the time.