By Barbara Grady
Seventh grade teacher I'Asha Warfield believes in getting to know her students well and then setting high expectations for them.
She believes that writing is the best tool for learning and asks her students at Oakland's Frick Middle School to write every day.
"Once a child can put it in writing, cognitively they've got it," she said. "The struggle he or she has to go through just to articulate things in writing, that is when clarity happens."
And she believes that instilling an atmosphere of respect in the classroom should take care of discipline; detentions and suspensions have no place in her teaching methodology.
Warfield must be on to something in these practices. She has been selected as a California Teacher of the Year and nominated by state education officials to be National Teacher of the Year. In other words, you might regard her as California's number one teacher.
There are 273,000 K-12 public school teachers in California.
Asked in a recent interview how it feels to be California's teacher of the year, the cheerful 35-year-old Oakland resident laughed and quickly changed the subject to talk about her students at Frick Middle School. She has taught at the East Oakland school that is part of Oakland Unified School District for 13 years – since being assigned to Frick by Teach for America shortly out of college.
"Our students have such intellectual capacity," she gushes with pride. "They are so capable and resilient."
As adolescents growing up in a tough part of East Oakland, they also face significant challenges, she added.
"With our students in particular, what makes life challenging is they are still dealing with puberty, with boy and girl crushes, with pimples and simultaneously they are dealing with seeing an enormous amount of violence," she said.
For many students, she said, the school is a "haven of stability" in their lives.
"When tragedy happens in the community, our kids run here," Warfield said. For kids whose parents are often missing or whose family does not live in stable housing, school provides the place they can count on.
Frick teachers and staff feel the responsibility of creating a stable, trusted place, she said. One way that Warfield famously answers that need is showing high regard for her students and expecting much of them as students.
"Someone asked me how do I get my students to do x, y and z. I said 'because I expect them to,'" Warfield said. "I think that because of where our kids come from in this community, some people are tempted to lower their expectations," worried that students might not have stable enough home lives to do homework, for instance.
"I think we need to do the opposite. We need to accelerate our expectations because of where they come from," she said.
Calvin Criddle, Frick's former principal who hired Warfield and watched her develop her teaching skills, said, "In her personality, she gives respect and she demands respect in return."
Among students, she is famous for making students try again if she didn't think an essay was up to snuff. If a student's homework is missing, she tells them to figure out how to get it done by the end of the day.
But these kind of demands haven't made her unpopular.
"She just wanted people to understand and do their work," explained eighth grader Isaiah Taylor who was one of her students last year. That expectation "helped me do my work better," he said. He and other students were randomly interviewed outside of Frick one afternoon after school let out.
Eighth grader Lexi James called Warfield "awesome," adding, "She made learning fun."
Then, turning more serious, she added, "If one of us was feeling down, she asked about us, she would help us."
That willingness to listen or help was the first thing mentioned by other students.
"She actually took time to help us out," Germane Gomez said when asked what made his seventh grade teacher so great.
Has Warfield's tough love worked in improving academic performance? According to OUSD, 70 percent of the top teacher’s students scored proficient or above in the English language arts portion of the California Standards Tests. The school averaged 27 percent proficient or above in English Language Arts, according to data at the California Department of Education.
Warfield grew up in Southern California the daughter of a demanding single mother. Through her mom's expectations of her, she was a straight A student and then became the first person in her family to attend college - financially allowed by a full scholarship to Occidental College.
"My mom was very structured and her expectations were very clear. My motivation came from her expectations," she said. "My students generally don't have that structure."
After graduation, Warfield spent a year teaching in Japan on an exchange program. Then she joined Teach for America.
"I don't think I would have entered teaching in the traditional way. It wasn't feasible for me, a first generation college student. It wasn't feasible to pay to go back for a credential and pay to work in someone else's classroom," she said. However, she did return to graduate school at night to earn her teaching credentials after she had taught with Teach for America for a while.
Frick's current principal, Jerome Gourdine, said everyone at the school is "beyond proud" of their California Teacher of the Year.
Her trail of awards started with being named one of two Teachers of the Year in OUSD last year and then honored by Alameda County as its nominee to the state.
This month, the California Education Department named Warfield one of five California Teachers of the Year, as well as the single nominee to represent California at the National Teacher of the Year competition early next year.
Tom Torlakson, California’s Superintendent of Schools, liked a particular practice he saw when he came to evaluate Warfield teaching a class.
"Ms. Warfield has an innovative way to ensure her students are learning by having them write down their own daily learning targets. Then she uses these learning target sheets to evaluate whether the students master the lesson," he said when announcing the state's awards. "That also helps inform her of how well she is teaching. This constant cycle of evaluation keeps her students learning and keeps herself at the top of her game."