Lincoln High math teacher leads students to pass AP calculus exam, including one of 12 in the world this year to achieve a perfect score.
As an immigrant student at Palisades High School, Anthony Yom (TEP, ’06; PLI, ’09) did not start out speaking English well, although he excelled in the universal language of math. However, when he moved up to calculus, things went differently.
“I was always afraid to ask questions because the class was moving at such a fast pace,” Yom recalls. 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 to study together at night on the USC campus after being dropped off by one of their parents. Working as a team to tackle challenging problems planted the seed for Yom’s 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,” Yom says. “I know what kids are capable of if they help each other.”
In Yom’s classroom, there are photos of his last three calculus classes: every student has passed the Advanced Placement (AP) exam three years in a row. There are photos from students of themselves and their friends, at the prom and various activities. Posters of snowboarding – Yom’s sport of choice – and a popular Japanese character called Domokun hang alongside affectionate caricatures by students of their teacher, who strives to create a nurturing learning environment. But this ideal classroom setting did not exist when “Mr. Yom” began teaching at Lincoln High 11 years ago. He describes the difficulty of navigating a student culture that he did not expect.
“At Palisades High School, where I was bussed, teachers were respected and kids were more academically focused,” Yom remembers. “When I started teaching at Lincoln, I had kids literally coming in or walking out in the middle [of class]. 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.
“The major turnaround was [building] my relationship with the kids,” he says. “The first year, I was too busy just trying to teach the lessons – ‘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. But toward the end of that year, the kids started actually approaching me – ‘Today was okay,’ ‘Mr. Yom, you did a good job’ – little comments like that.”
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.
“Kids are really smart. They know if you are approaching them with heart or you’re just faking it. My name got out among the kids, who said, ‘He actually helps you out.’”
In late January, Cedrick Argueta, a senior in Yom’s calculus class, became one of 12 students worldwide to achieve a perfect score on the AP calculus exam. Yom says that his student’s success is due in part to the fact that toward the end, Argueta was reinforcing 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, helping the other kids.”
Last year, Yom set a goal for every student to earn a perfect score of five on the AP calculus exam – at least three points are needed to pass. The previous year, 16 out of 22 students achieved a five; last year, 17 out of 21 received a perfect score.
“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.’”
Yom considers every student a success, no matter what score they achieve.
“Last year, one of the kids wanted to drop the class after the first semester, but I told him, ‘You came too far [to quit] and have a very good chance of getting a good passing score.’ I guess he felt pressured to get a five or he would have let me down. I said, ‘It’s not about that. It’s about the time that we spent together on this.’
“At the end of the day, he got a four. I ran into him during the summer at a local boba/coffee shop and told him, ‘I’m really proud of you.’ I think at that point, he felt acknowledged and relieved. That shows the effort he put in.”
Yom says that while stereotypes about certain groups of students excelling – or not excelling in math – are slowly changing, a lot needs to be done about the preconceived notions that surround student success.
“Kids have often been told or they convince themselves, ‘I’m Latino, I’m African American – I’m not supposed to be good at math,’” notes Yom. “Cultural barriers have existed for a long time. If you think about it, the media and their surroundings give them that impression. What I learned is that if you could let them taste success a little at a time, they start believing in themselves.”
Yom says that parental support and their collaboration with teachers and schools will also dispel stereotypes that hinder achievement.
“I only spend an hour to 90 minutes every day with my students,” he says. “Communication between the school and the parents is critical to what a child is capable of doing and how we can support them.”
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 and how they came to be where they are. I was aware of these things, but 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, Associate Dean for Community Programs, who was at that time one of his professors.
“Jody was a math teacher in LAUSD also,” says Yom. “I’ve always looked up to her. One of the first classes I took with Jody was a class where she would share her experiences as a teacher. Not only did she talk about education itself, but time to time she would open up and share her personal side of it… and what she went through at the time.
“[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 their 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.”
Yom gives back to his alma mater by teaching in the AP Readiness workshops offered to high school students by Center X during the school 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 advice or assistance on campus.
“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.”
While Yom looks forward to teaching for as long as he feels he can be most effective, he also hopes to someday enter administration.
“Right now, I have 150 kids, and I’m happy with that,” he says. “But I’ve wondered what kind of difference I could make if I were in charge of a larger student population. I want to see what I’m capable of doing.”
Believing in what his students are capable of is at the core of Yom’s teaching. However, his two greatest ambitions for them have nothing to do with math.
“Number one, I really want them to do something that they enjoy,” he says. “I don’t want them to become doctors because their parents want them to, or lawyers, because that sounds good. I have a former student who has a mechanics’ certification and works at a Lexus dealership. He’s very passionate about what he’s doing, and makes a good living. It doesn’t matter how people look at you, but you should do what you like and be happy about it.
“The second thing – and this is really important – I hope my kids learn how to give back. I have this mindset of donating and giving back because of my parents. They told me, ‘If you have ten, learn how to give back two or three. It’s not about your being rich, but about everyone moving forward together.’
“Of course, I want to see a few [become] teachers and mathematicians,” Yom laughs. “But ultimately it’s about happiness. There are ups and downs, but I hang in there because I truly love what I do.”