When a teacher’s current students meet his or her former pupils for the first time, typical questions are going to be asked: Was he or she a hard grader? Did he or she give a lot of homework? Sixth graders enrolled in the Film and Media Magnet at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles had those kinds of queries about their teacher, Joel Laguna. But at an after-school Teacher Appreciation Week event this week on campus, the kids asked three of Laguna’s former students the questions every educator loves hearing: “How much do you miss him?” and “Did you all love him as much as we do?”
Laguna is one of four educators profiled in the Davis Guggenheim–directed documentary TEACH, which explores the triumphs and struggles of America’s education system through the eyes of teachers and their students. The event brought together King students, parents, and staff, as well as district officials, for a screening of the film. Attendees were also treated to a question-and-answer session with Gilbert, Jennifer, and Mixtli, who appear in the documentary and were Advanced Placement English pupils of Laguna's at Garfield High School.
Like any excellent educator, Laguna let his students do all the talking.
One of the sixth graders told the teenagers, “I never get bored in his classroom.”
“Yeah, Mr. Laguna’s classroom’s energy level was up there, and I was just like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Gilbert said to the younger kids. “I’m glad I had him in the morning, because it woke me up. He did things that were out of the ordinary, but they were really cool.”
Along with sharing how much they appreciated having Laguna as a teacher, the trio of teenagers, who are juniors at Garfield and will be the first in their families to attend college, were also honest about the challenges they and Laguna faced in the classroom, such as overcrowding.
“The amount of kids that were in the classroom affected the way he was teaching,” said Jennifer. “There were 45 kids in there.”
“More like 59 kids on the first day,” said Laguna, who sat onstage next to the teens.
But Laguna managed to handle the challenge of such a large class. “He had more kids to deal with, but he did it individually, where we each got a big piece of knowledge from him and one-on-one sessions from him,” said Mixtli.
When asked whether they want to teach, all three teenagers expressed concerns about teacher salaries. “I don’t want to struggle like how my parents have,” said Mixtli. Instead, they all hope to go into business and law.
Los Angeles Unified School District board member Monica Ratliff, who taught in the district for 12 years, told the crowd that she hoped “movies like [TEACH] will change the mind-set” that teaching isn’t a sustainable career. Ratliff, also a former lawyer, told the attendees that teaching “is harder than being a lawyer, and it doesn’t pay as much. But it should.”
The students also weren’t sure if they could handle the responsibility of being an educator. “To me it would be scary because teachers have so much power—they can either discourage or encourage,” said Jennifer. “Getting that praise from your teacher is like, ‘Yes! We made it.’ ” She added, “You always remember the things a teacher says and does, both good and bad.”
King’s principal, Mark Naulls, who has worked in education for more than 21 years, was the former administrator at Garfield and hired Laguna at King. Naulls said he offered Laguna the job because he “had this sense that he would really resonate with our kids. He was just a selfless person and so energetic—he was up for anything.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air and brought a lot of enthusiasm and excitement,” Naulls added. “The families speak so highly of him when they come in and observe lessons.”
Seventh-grade English teacher Adriana Diaz, who is new to the school, said that working with Laguna and the rest of the team at King has been an incredible experience. “The relationship between a student and teacher is vital and pivotal,” she said. “The whole staff cares so much. We’re building a community here.”