Teacher lights up California kids’ lives the Kiwi way
WHEN Principal Ed Manson arrives at his small primary school in downtown Sacramento, California, 430 pupils are thrilled to see him.
Behind their smiles, however, these children are weary from daily battles with poverty, gang crime, homelessness and family violence in some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
Dyer-Kelly Elementary School, in one of Sacramento’s poorest communities, is a world away from Ed’s native New Zealand – and far from the comfortable Wellington suburbs where he taught as a young man.
Yet, Ed is helping change his young students’ lives for the better – using the relational approach to teaching that he learnt from the New Zealand system.
“At Dyer-Kelly, we operate from a highly personalised campus,” says Ed, who has lived in the US for 24 years.
“When I was teaching in New Zealand [in the 1970s], our relationships with our kids were most important.
“I learned that building relationships and connecting with kids personally gives them stamina to learn. If a kid’s not emotionally stable and successful, who cares how bright they are?”
All of Dyer-Kelly’s students – who are made up of many different ethnicities, including African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Romani – are currently living in poverty, and at least 10% are homeless. Many students display severe behavioural issues when first coming to school.
However, under Ed’s leadership, the children are thriving – thanks to a personalised curriculum, based on fostering strong student-teacher relationships and encouraging creative expression.
“Similar to in New Zealand, we have smaller classes,” says Ed. “Teachers make visits to kids’ homes, do community outreaches with the students, and try to connect with the kids on a personal level.
“Usually, California schools run highly scripted programmes, and have a very strict curriculum. Every kid is meant to be on the same page.“We try focus on the whole child, not just the child at school.”
Dyer-Kelly runs a reading and writing curriculum designed to encourage independent thinking and intellectual curiosity.
The school also runs a creative play programme inspired by Ed’s Kiwi career, allowing the students some time to be kids.
“They do things like play with paints and put on puppet shows. Things like that are actually quite innovative by Californian standards.”
“A lot of these children live in Section 8 housing blocks (State housing projects), so it’s not safe for them to play outside.”
“These kids live in chaos. So we’re providing them an oasis of an education.”
Ed himself (below, with stepdaughters Kathy and Sara) grew up in Wellington and, after secondary school, trained to be a teacher at Massey University, in Palmerston North.
Ed says his years teaching in New Zealand, where teachers did not have access to the same resources as today, has prepared him well for working with kids with high needs.
“Because we didn’t have the resources, teachers were very imaginative,” he says.
“We weren’t bound by a rigid curriculum, so we were versatile: we didn’t follow just one book or one approach. We had to be adaptable and flexible.”
Ed first came to the US in 1989, after he was recruited to work as a special education teacher for the South California School District.
He arrived in Los Angeles during the height of the city’s infamous gang conflict.
While in LA, he taught at some of “the most troubled schools” in the area, and was working as a vice principal in a school close to where the LA riots broke out.
“I worked with kids who were emotionally disturbed, who were stuck in the middle of gang warfare, who lived in the ghettos,” he says.
“Some of my students were murdered. Our city kids had very few expectations of living to adulthood. They didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, but permanent stress disorder because of some of the things they’d seen.”
In 2008, Ed took up a role as an education specialist and worked all over the US, including Florida, Colorado and Minnesota.
Nowadays, he says his heart lies with teaching, and that he is constantly inspired by his students at Dyer-Kelly.
“I am inspired by the stamina and endurance of our homeless kids. At the moment, we’ve got two kids sleeping in a park toilet, but they come to school every day.
“They have the most positive attitudes. It’s hard at times to comprehend how resilient they are.”
San Juan School District Superintendent Glynn Thompson says that, since Ed become Principal, Dyer-Kelly has one of the lowest suspension rates in the district, and also one of the lowest rates of absenteeism.
“Dyer-Kelly has dramatically improved attendance. The campus is calm and respectful,” he says.
Mr Thompson says that, thanks to extra funding from the State, the pupils are now able to join extracurricular groups – such as a small cheerleading group, basketball and soccer teams, drama classes and a choir – and go on overnight field trips.
He says Dyer-Kelly’s teachers are able to receive additional training and support, which has helped them more effectively teach such a diverse group of students.“[San Juan’s] high poverty schools have also received additional funding to have smaller class sizes, coaches for teachers and additional resources,” he says.“But at the end of the day, the strongest investment is providing support for teaching and leadership.”
Mr Thompson says he is grateful for the years of experience Ed has brought to Dyer-Kelly – and his relational teaching style and high work ethic has stirred admiration in fellow teachers in California.
High school maths teacher and close friend Dmitriy Voloshin says he admires Ed’s compassion, perseverance and “unbelievable old-work work ethics.”
“My favourite stories revolve around the relationships he was able to establish with the kids [at Dyer-Kelly],” says Mr Voloshin.
“It is not easy for a middle-class foreigner to relate to these kids. Ed managed to accomplish just that.”
Dmitriy also says he admires Ed for inspiring in his students a love of learning, which he says can be challenging in the regimented American education system.