BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jason Kamras, when did you first learn that you had become the national teacher of the year?
JASON KAMRAS, 2005 NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR: I learned a couple of days after the selection interviews, which were held at the beginning of March. So it was about three or four weeks before the actual Rose Garden ceremony.
LAMB: What was your reaction?
KAMRAS: Initially disbelief. I was very overwhelmed, and extremely excited and a bit humbled by the honor.
LAMB: Where do you teach? Where is -- where are we located?
KAMRAS: We're located at John Philip Sousa Middle School which is sixth, seventh and eighth grades. It's in Southeast Washington. It's a District of Columbia public school.
LAMB: How many children are at this school?
KAMRAS: We have about 400 students. And there are approximately 140 in the seventh grade.
LAMB: And what's the age range for seventh graders?
KAMRAS: About 11 to 14.
LAMB: And how long have you been here as a teacher?
KAMRAS: I've been here since 1996. I was away for one year when I got my masters in education, then I've been here every other year since then.
LAMB: So when you won this award, what happened?
KAMRAS: Well, I obviously found out about it and then began to do some preparation for the ceremony and everything that comes along with it. And then as we got closer, the whole interviewing began, and I was able to let my family know and some close friends. So that was very exciting. But otherwise I had to keep it pretty quiet.
LAMB: So where was the ceremony?
KAMRAS: The ceremony was at the White House.
LAMB: What was the setting?
KAMRAS: We were, all of us, 50 state teachers of year plus a couple from other jurisdictions in the country, gathered in the Roosevelt Room. We received instructions about the protocol for going into the Oval Office. And then each teacher met the president in the Oval Office, had our picture taken. We met the first lady as well and the secretary of education.
My family and I were the last to go through. And we spent a couple of minutes with the president and first lady. And then we were ushered to the Rose Garden. And the president spoke and the first lady spoke and then I had the opportunity to speak briefly.
LAMB: Had you ever been in the Oval Office before?
KAMRAS: I had not.
LAMB: What did the president say to you?
KAMRAS: He said, great job. He said, this is a really big deal and that I should be very proud. He was very gracious with my family. My brothers were there, my parents, and my girlfriend. So that was a great experience for them to meet the president and first lady.
LAMB: So when you got to the Rose Garden, what happened then?
KAMRAS: Well, we walked out of the Oval Office. I actually started walking down the wrong path, and the president got me back on the right path. We made our way to the podium. He -- I'm sorry, the first lady spoke briefly, introduced the president, and then he spoke. And it was incredible to have them speak about me and my students and my family and my colleagues.
And then he introduced me and I was able to speak briefly and then they presented a crystal apple as a token for the national teacher of the year honor.
LAMB: Let's watch a little bit of that Rose Garden ceremony and we'll come back and continue.
KAMRAS: Sounds good.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: Congratulations, Jason. And congratulations to everyone of our teachers of the year, America's teachers of the year. I love this event. I always look forward to it in the few years that we've been here. Everyone of you are doing the most important job in the world, no offense to the president.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the finest teachers in our country is with us today. He is the 2005 national teacher of the year, Jason Kamras.
He teaches mathematics at John Philip Sousa Middle School right here in the nation's capital. Jason joined the Teach for America Program. He did so because he wanted to show students, the so-called "hard to educate," that with high works and high standards, they can overcome any challenge they face.
KAMRAS: I'm privileged to be a member of a profession that is filled with so many extraordinary individuals. My colleagues work tirelessly every day doing wonderful and challenging work. They lend their passion, creativity, intellect, and love to children of all ages. And they do so almost always without recognition. There is simply no group of people that I would be prouder to represent.
To the state teachers of the year gathered here today and to all of the other educators around the nation, let me say with the deepest admiration, thank you. I would also like to thank my family, my friends, and inspiring colleagues at John Philip Sousa Middle School for their unceasing support and encouragement.
Most of all, I want to thank my students. They are the reason I love teaching and the reason we are all gathered here today. Four of them are here. And if I could ask them to stand.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: So were you nervous?
KAMRAS: I was nervous. I didn't expect to be so. I think standing in front of 30 children every day is probably the most difficult thing anybody can do. But I think being in the moment and the gravity of the White House made me a little bit nervous, yes.
LAMB: What did your students think of this?
KAMRAS: They loved it. I was able to bring four former students with me to the White House. And I think that was really the highlight for me. And I was able to recognize them during my speech. And the president actually called them up to the podium. They were able to get some pictures with the first lady and the president.
And they were on the front cover of The Washington Post. So it was a great experience for them. And I think they were very proud something very positive was being said about them and their school and the community. So I think it was a great moment for them.
LAMB: As I understand it, one of the first things that happens, though, is the school loses you for a year.
KAMRAS: Yes, yes. It's bittersweet in that respect. I will definitely miss being with my students. There is nothing I love more than teaching and being in the classroom. But as I tell my students, when you have an opportunity that really broadens your perspective and will help you learn more, that you should take that opportunity.
And so I'm hoping that this year will enrich me as a teach and open my eyes to more in education. And I'll be able to bring that back to my school and be an even better teacher for them.
LAMB: How would do define what a teacher does?
KAMRAS: I think a teacher inspires. I think a teacher opens your perspective, opens your mind to look at things in a way perhaps you didn't look at them before.
LAMB: Can you remember when you first thought you might want to be a teacher?
KAMRAS: Well, my mother was a teacher in the New York City Public School system, and so I think I've always had it in my blood. But I started working with children and doing some educational tutoring, that sort of thing when I was in college. And I really felt at home when I was doing that. And it inspired me to look further into teaching as a profession.
LAMB: What's the hardest part of the job and what's the easiest part of the job?
KAMRAS: I think the hardest part of the job, or one of the most challenging parts of the job is finding the way to meet every child's specific learning needs, particularly at the secondary level you have -- I have over a 130 students. And each of those students learns in a slightly different way.
And so one of the challenges a teacher has is to figure out what is the way that this child learns? Is it visual? Is it auditory? Do they need to get up and move around? Do they need to do something with their hands to create and develop?
So I think that's one of the most challenging parts. It's also one of the most rewarding parts because when you do make that connection, there is nothing quite as exciting and rewarding.
LAMB: Who sponsors the National Teacher of the Year Award, and how do you go about becoming a participant in all of that?
KAMRAS: It's sponsored by ING and by Scholastic. It also receives support from the Smarter Kids Foundation. It's run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is a consortium of all the heads of the education agencies in all the states and territories.
And the way it works is each state has a state teacher of the year, and those are decided by each state. And then from those state teachers of the year are selected four finalists by a panel of leaders in various education organizations. And then from those four there is another selection round and the winner is chosen.
LAMB: This is the first time anybody from the District of Columbia has won this?
KAMRAS: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Did you put your own application in or did somebody put it in on your behalf?
KAMRAS: Well, there are nominations done on your behalf. But there are a series of essays that you write to tell basically your message, your philosophy. And so that's all done by the teacher.
LAMB: What did you tell them?
KAMRAS: Well, it's quite extensive. There are probably about 10 different essays. But a couple of the central themes for me are that I view teaching as not only the act of sharing knowledge and inspiring children, but it's also a means of advancing equity in this nation.
I believe that education is the cornerstone of opportunity in our country. And there are still too many children that don't have access to an excellent education, and therefore access to opportunity. And so I teach in part to help expand that equity and that opportunity.
LAMB: Now we're recording this at the end of a week.
LAMB: On a Friday afternoon.
LAMB: After you've spent how many hours in the classroom?
KAMRAS: Probably 40 in the classroom.
LAMB: You don't look any worse for wear.
KAMRAS: Well, you asked me before what the easiest thing was, I didn't get to answer you. And the easiest thing is being with my children. Their smiles, their creativity, their humor just makes this the most exciting and wonderfully rewarding job in the world.
So working with them is one of the easiest things to do. It's also sometimes challenging, but it puts an amazing smile on my face. And that's why I don't look worse for wear.
LAMB: When did you know that you had this attitude about being in the classroom?
KAMRAS: Well, I think I came into the profession with this attitude. And I think that may be in part responsible for some of the success I've had. This relentless drive to achieve with my students and really never settle for anything but excellence is really what I think has sustained me and pushed me forward.
LAMB: Where did it all start, though?
KAMRAS: Well, you know, as I said, just when I had these opportunities to work with children during college and I was…
LAMB: Yes. But go back. It must have been your mother?
KAMRAS: Oh, that back.
LAMB: Did you have a teacher…
LAMB: … somewhere that…
KAMRAS: Well, a couple of things. I have two brothers, an older brother and a younger brother, and so I always got to be the mediator between them. And I like that process of bringing people together. And I think that's a big part of what teaching is.
In addition a number of teachers early on that were incredibly inspiring.
LAMB: Tell us about some.
KAMRAS: Sure. I'll just -- I'll name a few. Kerry Cohn (ph), who was one of my very earliest teachers in preschool and elementary school. And I still remember her for her -- the depth of her caring that she brought to the…
LAMB: Where was this?
KAMRAS: This was in Sacramento, California.
LAMB: You remembered…
KAMRAS: I do.
LAMB: How old are you right now?
KAMRAS: Right now I'm 31.
LAMB: And you remember preschool.
KAMRAS: Preschool and kindergarten. I just remember the sort of nurturing, loving presence that she brought. And you know, I was the kind of child that was a little bit afraid to go away from home when I went off to school. And I just remember that being a very -- a great source of comfort to me.
I remember my zoology teacher in seventh grade, Mr. Rothshuler (ph), who really showed me how much students can achieve if they're really pushed. I think -- he had a zoology class and we did all sorts of dissections and were required to learn a great deal of zoology. And my father is physician and he was impressed by how much we knew just from that one class.
And I felt this incredible sense of accomplishment after that class from him pushing us and pushing us and pushing us. And so I think I've been able to bring some of that into my classroom with my students.
At the time I didn't recognize how important that was, but looking back I do realize that it really made me achieve more than I thought maybe I could.
LAMB: Did you get good grades all the time?
KAMRAS: I did get pretty good grades. But I was sort of a quiet student. I wasn't necessarily the one always raising his hand. And so I do have some empathy for students who are struggling with self-confidence and try to nurture that and create a safe space for them to participate and develop that confidence.
LAMB: Who do you remember from your college years and where did you go to college?
KAMRAS: I went to Princeton University. And there were probably two professors that I remember most. One was my thesis adviser, Michael Doyle (ph), and he works now with the United Nations. And just dedication that he brought in working with me was inspiring.
And the other was Cornell West who I had the opportunity to take a class with. And his commitment to equity and social activism was inspiring to me as well.
LAMB: Back to the Cornell West phase.
LAMB: We've had a lot of opportunity to hear him on our network.
LAMB: What's he like in the classroom compared to what we see in public life?
KAMRAS: He's incredibly engaging and inspiring in the classroom. It's one of those lectures that you go to and you will definitely not dose off during the lecture. And it's a kind of lecture that you may not be scribbling down notes but you're constantly thinking a reevaluating positions that maybe you brought into the classroom. And I think that's what great teachers do is just to make you think and reevaluate.
LAMB: Now he's at Princeton now, but he was at Harvard then.
KAMRAS: Well, he was at Princeton, he went Harvard and now he's back at Princeton again.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to him about what a good teacher does?
KAMRAS: I never had the opportunity to speak with him directly about that. But I'm hoping perhaps this year I will have that chance.
LAMB: What year did you get out of Princeton?
LAMB: And what did you do right away?
KAMRAS: Well, right after I graduated, I spent some time abroad. I wanted to do a little bit of international work. And I worked at a think-tank in Jerusalem, working on pro-democracy issues.
LAMB: Why does Israel need a pro-democracy think-tank?
KAMRAS: Well, it's a think-tank that works to promote political reform in the country, to further democratic objectives, and it was an exciting place to be and to work and to learn about that region of the world. And they gave me an opportunity to learn. And I think, going back to this, all these experiences that have broadened my perspective I was able then to bring to the classroom. And I think that enriches you as a teacher.
LAMB: How long were you in Israel?
KAMRAS: About six months.
LAMB: Where were you?
KAMRAS: I was in Jerusalem.
LAMB: So what did you take away from that experience?
KAMRAS: Well, I -- not only did I have the opportunity to learn more language, Hebrew skills, that was really quite wonderful. But also I was there during one of the election cycles. And I was able to witness firsthand the passion that people have on both sides of so many different issues.
And I think it gave me a more visceral understanding of some of the difficulties that the whole Middle East struggles with.
LAMB: What year?
KAMRAS: That was the fall of -- or, I'm sorry, the winter of '96.
LAMB: And what was going on politically in the country in '96?
KAMRAS: Well, they were having an election between Netanyahu and Peres. And so, you know, Labour versus Likud, conservative and liberal and struggling for sort of the future of the peace process and what direction that would take.
And so still a lot of the same issues that they're struggling with now they were struggling with then.
LAMB: What does Israel do with education that we don't do here?
KAMRAS: That's a good question. And I hope I'll have the opportunity to go back and perhaps learn a little bit more about that. I didn't have a chance to spend too much time in the education system there.
But I think one of the things that they work with is broadening cultural understanding since they are dealing with this deep conflict. And so I know we do that in the United States too, and I think we could perhaps learn from each other in that respect.
LAMB: So after Israel, six months there, '96…
LAMB: Where did you go?
KAMRAS: So then I had applied to Teach for America.
LAMB: What's that?
KAMRAS: Teach for America is a program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved school systems in rural and urban communities. And not only do they recruit you and then place you in schools, but also train you and support you during your two-year commitment to the program.
LAMB: What do they pay you?
KAMRAS: Well, you're actually an employee of the school, just like any other teacher. So you get the normal…
LAMB: Do you remember how much you were paid at your first job in teaching?
KAMRAS: Yes. I think it was about 27,000, 26,000.
LAMB: And where was it?
KAMRAS: That was here. That was here.
LAMB: Right at this school.
KAMRAS: At this school. This was my very first job.
LAMB: Can you afford to live in Washington, D.C., on $27,000 a year?
KAMRAS: It is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so, particularly in this city where housing prices are rising and the standard of living is rising as well. So it is becoming a struggle, yes.
LAMB: John Philip Sousa Middle School, what's the racial mix?
KAMRAS: The school is about 99 percent African-American and about 1 percent Latino.
LAMB: What did they think about being taught by a white person?
KAMRAS: To be honest, it really has not been a significant issue for me. And I think the reason is what I found is children and parents and the community are most interested in a teacher's dedication to children and to learning. And once you demonstrate your unyielding commitment to your children, most of those other factors fall to the wayside. And what they're most concerned about is, are you teaching? Are you dedicated? Are you putting in all the time necessary for the children?
LAMB: So is it late '96 when you started?
KAMRAS: It was September of '96, yes.
LAMB: So you were in this classroom we're in?
KAMRAS: I was actually downstairs, on the first floor. I was teaching sixth grade at that time.
LAMB: Give us the profile of what you felt, sixth grade kids, first time you were in the classroom -- let me just add to this that when I walked in the building today, the noise with all the kids and everything, school was out, was strong. Is that normal?
KAMRAS: Yes. I think in any middle school environment kids like to be vocal and especially during passing times you're going to get a lot of that. When I first came, I was nervous as any teacher would be. I just wanted to make sure that I was going to do a good job.
I take this job so seriously and it's so important to me. And I wanted to make that I would do my children justice, that I would teaching them and ensuring that they would achieve. I didn't want my first year to be a trial and error year. I really wanted it to be a success.
So I think I was nervous about that. I was also very excited. The thrill of standing before children and working with them is something that I had done in bits and pieces. But this was the first chance that I was going to have to have my classroom, to have my students. And so there was a palpable excitement for me.
LAMB: What was their immediate reaction to you?
KAMRAS: You know, I think they were excited. It was the first day of school. There was -- I can't remember anything, you know, particularly dramatic that happened that first day. I had everything very organized and I was very prepared and I had lots of work for everybody to do.
And so things went pretty smoothly and there wasn't -- I was happy with how the first couple of days went.
LAMB: How many students in a class?
KAMRAS: At that time? Probably about mid 20s, thereabouts.
LAMB: And they are sixth graders, and you're teaching them what?
KAMRAS: I was teaching math, sixth grade math.
LAMB: And how much math had you already -- I mean, when you're in college, you're…
KAMRAS: I had gone through calculus, so sixth grade math is back fractions and decimals and percent and a little bit of statistics and probabilities. Some basic algebraic concepts and geometry.
LAMB: So what are the things you do right away in the beginning when you meet your kids in a classroom that you want to set the rules? How do you do it?
KAMRAS: Well, I teach my rules as I would any other academic objective. So I make it into almost a mini-unit. And we will do activities. We'll play bingo. We'll play -- I have all sorts of other little board games I've created. We'll do role-playing, all sorts of things.
And I don't spend a lot of time on it, maybe just a couple of days. But I want them to internalize my expectations so that it's second nature to them. And I know that each teacher has slightly different things that they expect of their students.
And so when you're on the secondary level and you're going to seven different teachers, it's a lot for students to take in. And so I really want to make sure that they completely understand what I expect.
LAMB: What do you have them call you?
KAMRAS: Mr. Kamras.
LAMB: What do they wear? Is there a uniform they wear? Do they have standards?
KAMRAS: There is no uniform at this school. But there are standards of modesty that we enforce.
LAMB: And how involved did you learn early in those days that their parents were?
KAMRAS: Well, I think the involvement of most parents is very, very good. Every parent wants the very best for their children. And some confront some challenges -- socio-economic challenges which sometimes make it difficult to support their children as much as they would like to. And those we confront.
But every parent I've ever met loves their children and wants the very best for the children.
LAMB: Is there conclusion that you can reach about young people when they get in your classroom, whether or not if there's a split in the family or there's a -- money is a problem or all the kind of the things, is there any overall general conclusion you can reach about somebody who you're trying to teach, keeping their attention, how well they do on tests, all that kind of thing?
KAMRAS: Well, I think one thing I've learned is I can't make any general conclusions about any of my students. That any of those factors in their lives aren't good predictors necessarily of their ability or their potential or their ability to concentrate.
But when a student is struggling with something, what I've found is in the cases where it's really quite severe, by making an extra effort to make a connection with the family, and by doing some outside school things with the children, small field trips, attending basketball games, attending chess tournaments, and letting them know that you deeply care about them beyond just the math lesson, helps develop a rapport that helps carry them through sometimes the challenges that they face.
LAMB: How many years have you taught in this school?
KAMRAS: Eight years?
LAMB: And what are you teaching right now?
KAMRAS: I teach seventh grade math this year.
LAMB: In this class.
KAMRAS: In this class, yes.
LAMB: And how many students do you have when you're teaching in this class?
KAMRAS: I have approximately 28 to 30 students per class. And I have five sections.
LAMB: So how long are the sections?
KAMRAS: The sections are about an hour long.
LAMB: What time do you get to this school every day, five days a week?
KAMRAS: Between 7:00 and 8:00, usually around 7:30, and try to sometimes during the year, particularly before the standardized tests, I do an early bird math program. And basically I work with some students to help prepare them for the standardized test that they take at the end of the year. And then have my full school day, and then after school I have photography program where I work with children after school.
LAMB: Is that all part of your contract?
KAMRAS: No, no, no. I think the contract is 8 to 3:30.
LAMB: So all of that is extra on your own time?
LAMB: And why do you do all that?
KAMRAS: Because I love my children and I believe that for me to do the best job that I want to do, that that's what I need to do.
LAMB: Is there a moment you can tell when a student is getting it?
KAMRAS: Yes. Well, sometimes its -- they'll verbalize to you, and sometimes you'll just see it. You might see it in students sitting up a little bit taller in their chair. You might see it in a student raising their hand after three or four days of them trying to duck the questions.
I had a student -- we did an activity -- a geometry activity using cookies and frosting to help reinforce the various parts of a circle, diameters, radii, circumferences and that sort. And at the end of the activity one of my students said when they were eating the cookies, he said, you know what, this was the first time I got to eat my math assignment. And he said, I'll never forget what a radius or a diameter is.
So at that moment, I knew I had him.
LAMB: Let's go back to the National Teacher of the Year Award. What do you get?
KAMRAS: I get the opportunity to talk about teaching, to celebrate all the great work that my colleagues do everyday in this nation. I get the opportunity to talk about my kids and let the country know how great they are. And I get the opportunity to bring that message I was talking about before, about I believe our country needs to do more to ensure equity for all children and help close the achievement gap.
LAMB: Did they pay you?
KAMRAS: I will be paid as a teacher as I would normally by the school system.
LAMB: So you don't get any more money.
KAMRAS: No. No more money.
LAMB: Do you get a financial reward for winning the National Teacher of the Year?
LAMB: So why go to all the trouble of doing this? You're going to miss your kids for a year.
KAMRAS: Yes. Well, like I said, first of all, I don't think any teacher goes into teaching for financial reward. But the opportunity to shed light on the great work that my colleagues are doing is an amazing opportunity.
The opportunity to let the world know that there are great children in Southeast Washington who are achieving, I think the city needs to know that and the country needs to know that.
The opportunity to shed light on inequities in public education and the opportunity to advance policies that will help level the playing field is an amazing opportunity. And no amount of money could replace those opportunities.
LAMB: So what are the inequities?
KAMRAS: Well, I think in many parts of this country, expectations for students aren't as high as they need to be. I think in many parts of this country the resources available to students aren't what those children deserve. In many parts of this country the policies aren't what they need to be, the staffing isn't what it needs to be.
And that primarily impacts low-income communities in urban and rural systems around the country.
LAMB: So if you could have everything you wanted…
KAMRAS: Everything I wanted.
LAMB: … right here in this school, what would you do?
KAMRAS: Well, I would…
LAMB: What would you change, everything?
KAMRAS: Yes. I think I would, first and foremost, invest more in people to attract the very best in the profession to teach where teachers are -- where students are most underserved.
LAMB: Explain that.
KAMRAS: Well, my school, we have difficulty sometimes getting teachers to come teach here. In fact we have a double math program where we are giving students two math classes every day.
And the idea was to further their mathematics achievement by breaking down the curriculum into these two tracks and giving them double the amount. And we piloted it a couple of years ago. And it had dramatic impact on students' achievement.
LAMB: Like what?
KAMRAS: So, on the standardized tests that we take, the year before we piloted it, our students were scoring about 80 percent in the "below basic" category, which is the lowest category. After we piloted that year, that percentage fell to 40 percent. So we cut in half the number of students scoring at the lowest level.
LAMB: But why double math?
KAMRAS: Well, that was a particular need area. We had 80 percent of the student body scoring at a level which indicated little or no mastery of grade level mathematics. And so that was my area and that was something that I wanted to focus on.
LAMB: How did you get them to agree to the double exposure?
KAMRAS: I spoke with my principal. And he agreed that this would be a good idea, but this goes to your initial question, was, we need to double the amount of math faculty that we have. So instead of having three teachers, we needed six.
And this year we weren't able to get the additional teacher for my grade, the seventh grade. There just simply were not enough people who wanted to teach in the District. And that's not necessarily a problem that districts in suburban communities have, not to the same extent.
And so if that means creating financial incentives to bring people in or using resources to improve working conditions to bring people in, we need to do those things to help attract teachers to come into systems where -- that are underserved.
LAMB: But you're here.
KAMRAS: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: I mean, and you're attracted to this place.
LAMB: Why do they have to do something special to get others to come?
KAMRAS: Well, I think the reality is that it is difficult to face a lot of the challenges that under-resourced school systems have. And so sometimes there needs to be a little bit added bonus, a little bit added push to help people give it a try.
LAMB: What are the added challenges that this school has?
KAMRAS: Well, there resource challenges. You know, I have a lot of technology in classroom that is incredibly effective with my students, but that's because I've been able to spend a lot of time during summers writing grants and getting that technology.
LAMB: How much in the way of grant money have you gotten over the years?
KAMRAS: Over $50,000.
LAMB: How did you do it?
KAMRAS: Just spending weeks during the summer, writing to anyone who would listen to me, and many who wouldn't listen to me.
LAMB: So what did you do with the $50,000 in this room?
KAMRAS: Computers, LCD projectors, all sorts of supplies for my class, binders, portfolios, all sorts of things, digital cameras.
LAMB: Why isn't that available from the District of Columbia? Because we always that the District spends more money per student than anyplace else.
KAMRAS: Well, the District does spend a lot, but they also have a lot of challenges that they need to spend the money on. The district has a very high percentage of students in special education. And that's an incredible drain on resources.
It's important that we allocate resources to that, but that's one of the reasons that we are spending so much money in the District of Columbia.
But back to your question. I have a colleague that does not have electricity in her classroom, and so she can't even use technology if she wanted to.
LAMB: In this school?
LAMB: No electricity?
LAMB: At all?
KAMRAS: She has lights, but the outlets don't work. And it's not because the school system doesn't support the teachers, it's just that there is a limited number of people -- maintenance people to come and do all these things that need to be done in school buildings.
And so in the 21st Century in the richest country in the world, no child should be going to a classroom that doesn't have electricity, that doesn't have 21st Century technology, that doesn't have a dedicated teacher.
LAMB: Who do you think is responsible for that, the government here, the local citizenry or the national government?
KAMRAS: I think as a nation, there is a responsibility to be shared at all levels. I think at local level and at the national level we need to do more. We cannot afford to not invest in our children. And I think we need to make that commitment and say that we are going to ensure that every, regardless of where that child lives or grows up, will have everything that he or she deserves/
LAMB: Well, go back to your grant-hunting episode in your life where you got out (ph) -- and $50,000-plus, is it out there if you want it?
KAMRAS: Well, it's -- I mean, there are funds out there, but it's incredibly difficult and it's limited, as with all things, resources are scarce. And so it takes an incredible amount of time. And I've been fortunate to be able to carve some time our during the summer. But a lot of teachers need to work during the summer. And so it's difficult to find that time.
But I do believe that we can -- again, it goes back to this idea of just being undaunted and finding your way through any challenges that you face. And so for me grant-writing was one of the ways I was able to do that.
LAMB: So if another teacher is listening to this and they hadn't thought about this grant-writing thing, what would you advise him, where can you go to get grants?
KAMRAS: Well, I was able to tap into the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, which has a Web site. And they link probably hundreds of foundations and philanthropic organizations in the city.
And my understanding is there is something like that in pretty much every major locality. And so to do some sort Internet search and to find that organization, that clearinghouse, and then tap into each of those organizations.
LAMB: How many grants did you have to apply for in order to get your 50,000? In other words, how many did you get turned down on?
KAMRAS: Well, the ratio of approved to rejected was one to 15, something like that. It's just there are a lot of organizations maybe you don't quite fit their criteria. You know, they're a little bit more interested in focusing adult learners, or they're interested more in health issues and not education issues, or they're interested in national programs and not local programs. So it's…
LAMB: How long does it take, once you've decided to go after a grant, from the start of the process until you get your money?
KAMRAS: It varies. Some turn around in a month, some turn around in a year, so it just depends.
LAMB: OK. Getting better facilities (INAUDIBLE)…
KAMRAS: Yes. Sure.
LAMB: Do teachers need to be paid more money?
KAMRAS: Well. I'm always in favor of compensating teachers more than they currently are being compensated.
LAMB: Can you give us an idea how much more? I mean, what is the standard wage today for a teacher?
KAMRAS: You know, honestly, I don't know what the average salary in the nation is. But I do know that teachers do incredibly challenging work and it's not that teachers work for the money. I mean, teachers work because they truly believe in what they're doing and are dedicated to their children and love their children. But that should be used a pretext for not compensating them for what they deserve.
LAMB: But for instance, right now, what's the range, beginning teacher to teaching forever?
KAMRAS: I'd say it also depends on locality, anywhere between high 20s to 70s.
LAMB: And that's for, what, a nine-months-a-year…
KAMRAS: Ten months, but most teachers are working much more than that 10 months, are working during the summer, are going to workshops, taking classes, planning for their classrooms. So the nine-month teacher is, in my view, something of a myth.
LAMB: Now as the national teacher of the year, how many times are you going to be speaking this year, what's the range?
KAMRAS: I'm told that it's about 150, maybe more than that.
LAMB: And how far do you have to travel?
KAMRAS: All over the country and some international travel as well.
LAMB: And in what kind of venue?
KAMRAS: I think they will range from classrooms to convention halls.
LAMB: So how are you going to prepare for this?
KAMRAS: Well, I think, as with teaching, always reevaluating. So after every speech I get -- I do, get the feedback and get a sense of where I'm connecting with people and where I'm not. And keep improving, talking to past teachers over the year and hear what made them successful.
As a teacher you learn to go and observe the best and helps you be a better teacher. So I will definitely speak with my predecessors.
LAMB: Go back to your Teach for America experience. How long was that?
KAMRAS: It's a two-year commitment.
LAMB: And what is it all about? Who administers it?
KAMRAS: Well, it was started by a woman named Wendy Kopp about 15 years ago. She was actually also a graduate of Princeton. And she has this idea of advancing equity. And I had talked about resources. But I also talked about getting great teachers into the classroom. And so her idea is, well, let's try to motivate some of the best and the brightest in the nation to go into the classroom and to teach.
And so this -- it's administrated by Teach for America, which is a nonprofit organization. And they have teachers in 22 different cities or regions around the country. And it starts with a summer training which is about seven weeks of intensive training where you're not only learning theory, but you're also working with children in summer school programs to develop your skills.
And then you start in the fall and you spend two years, that's you commitment, many stay on and continue to teach. And during those two years you are supported by the Teach for America staff who observe you, provide feedback, who set up learning communities so you can get together with other teachers who teach the same grade level or the same subject.
So there's a lot of training and support that goes into the program which is very helpful as a first-year and second-year teacher.
LAMB: After your first two years here, what did you do?
KAMRAS: So I stayed here for a third year. Then I left my fourth year to get my masters in education at Harvard. In my fifth year I came back and I've been back since.
LAMB: What impact did the masters at Harvard have on you? What did you learn there?
KAMRAS: Well, I think it gave me an opportunity to step back a little bit and to think about some of the things that I wanted to improve on as a teacher. And I had the opportunity to work on some of those things, so pedagogy, some policy.
I had the opportunity to learn how to develop educational software which I've used a little bit. I had the opportunity learn to learn more about the cognitive development of children and how to meet their individual learning styles. And it also just gave me a chance to recharge and then come back to the classroom.
LAMB: Why did you decide to come back here?
KAMRAS: I decided to come back here because I love Sousa. I love the children and the community and I really feel like it's my second family. And so there's nowhere else I'd rather be. And so after I finished the program I wanted to come back.
LAMB: So what's so special about this place?
KAMRAS: You know, I think the children are special. They put a smile on my face. They're incredibly creative, resilient, and, you know, every day is special. And every day they inspire me.
And I've now had siblings of children and I now know complete families and so I feel just so invested in them.
LAMB: So you've been here eight years. That means that there are sixth and seventh graders that there are a bunch of them have gone to college by now.
KAMRAS: Yes. Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How have they done? Have you tracked them all?
KAMRAS: I do keep in touch with a number of them. I have a very close relationship with one of my very first students. Had him my very first sixth grade class. And he's now a sophomore at Morehouse College, majoring in electrical engineering.
He -- I had the opportunity to take him up to Columbia University over winter break because Columbia has a joint masters in engineering program with Morehouse. And he's thinking about doing that. And he is on track to meet or exceed all the expectations to get into that very prestigious program.
So I've been able to keep track with a lot of my kids. And it has been really quite rewarding.
LAMB: So go back to the classroom, what are some of the other things, devices, I don't want to say gimmicks, but they probably are that you get -- keep their attention and teach them math. And you've also taught social studies.
KAMRAS: I did briefly, yes. I've used a lot of games. I've found kids, particularly this age, love playing games. And it's a way for them to learn when they don't realize that they're learning. So I've created all sorts of board games where they get to get up and move around.
I do a lot of kinesthetic activities. In teacher-speak that means getting kids up and moving them. So math aerobics, having them get up and show you acute angles, obtuse angles, right angles, with their bodies, or show translations or rotations with their bodies.
I try to use a lot of visual activities. So everything I do is projected with my LCD projector and so they can see everything that I am doing. And so just coming at the teaching from all those different points, all those different learning styles I think is the way I'm able to engage them and keep them focused and excited.
LAMB: Is there any time of day that you find the students better able to learn?
KAMRAS: Typically in the morning, they're a little bit more focused. And as the day wears on, they tend of get a little bit more distracted.
LAMB: Now you spent some time with the president, as we talked about earlier, in the Oval Office with him and his wife who was a teacher. Did he ask you to sit down and tell him everything that you know about teaching and how to improve it?
KAMRAS: Honestly, we only had about a minute or two in the Oval Office. So it was -- and most of it was just introducing my family and having the opportunity for them to talk…
LAMB: All right. Let's assume that he's watching us. And if you were going to tell the president of the United States everything that you've thought of along the way that he could do, that the national government could do, what would you tell him that you want specifically, not just the…
KAMRAS: The broad strokes.
LAMB: … not the broad strokes. Just -- I mean, what would you want directly from his Education Department that would make your life as a teacher better and better for the students?
KAMRAS: Sure. I think specifically we should at least double the amount of funding we give to Title I, which is…
LAMB: Explain that.
KAMRAS: Title I is the part of the budget which is dedicated to supporting education in low-income communities. Currently we spend about $13 billion on that program, which sounds like a lot of money, but is an extremely small fraction of the federal budget.
I mean, it comes out to half of 1 percent of the federal budget.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many of those dollars come to John Philip Sousa school?
KAMRAS: I don't know the specific number, but I would think it's at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars.
LAMB: But you want to double that.
KAMRAS: I would at least double it. I think our children deserve that. I also believe we should increase funding for the law that supports special education students, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
When that law was passed, it was written into law that the federal government would fund it at 40 percent of its per pupil cost. And we still are funding that at about 20 percent. And so I believe we have an obligation to fully fund that to support children who do have learning disabilities.
I believe we should continue to create incentives and some of these things have been done in terms of loan forgiveness and extra bonuses and that sort of thing, to create incentives for teachers to teach in underserved school districts.
LAMB: When you say incentives, is that money?
KAMRAS: It could be money, but it could -- it doesn't have to be directly money. It could be low interest home loans, it could be loan forgiveness for college loans. I mean, when you are coming out of school, and particularly private school, you may have $80,000 to $100,000 of student loan debt.
And then to take a job where you're getting paid $28,000, $29,000, it's a daunting challenge.
LAMB: How have you done it?
KAMRAS: I've been able to take advantage of some of the loan forgiveness programs. But I also -- I'm paying student loans. So I pay every month. I was also fortunate that my parents were able to support me to some extent with my college loans.
LAMB: Now when you went to Harvard did you -- did it cost a lot of money to go to Harvard?
KAMRAS: It did cost, yes.
LAMB: Is there any kind of help that they give you when you go to get your masters degree?
KAMRAS: They're actually one of the -- it's difficult because they don't have a lot of funding for support for tuition. So that's one of the student loans that I'm paying for.
LAMB: To go back to the -- you're in the Oval Office, you're still telling the president exactly what you want. What else?
KAMRAS: Well, I also think, projecting this -- the ethos of high expectations, which has been something that the administration has been doing, I think is very important, to push all students to achieve at the highest levels.
And I don't want to undersell that. I think it's very important when you have the bully pulpit of the presidency and the nation to keep pushing this idea that all children can and must achieve at the highest levels I think is incredibly important.
LAMB: I don't have the language in front of me but Bill Gates made a speech to the governors some time ago in which he basically said, and I hope I'm paraphrasing it right, that the structure of education in the United States is way out of date, it's 50 years old. We have to change everything if we want to stay ahead of the rest of the world, even stay up with the rest of the world. Would you agree with that?
KAMRAS: Well, I think there are lots of places in this country and there are lots of classrooms where education is ahead of the curve, where it's incredibly creative and dynamic and interactive. But I think there still needs -- more needs to be done to bring it into the 21st Century, to make sure learning is involved with technology.
And I don't just mean putting computers in front of children. I mean, using LCD projectors to show geometric manipulations, using multimedia for students to create projects that demonstrate their learning.
Integrating the subject areas so it’s not five individual tracks that they're on, but rather a cohesive interactive exploration of learning. I think we can do more to push in those directions.
LAMB: Have you run out of ideas for the present?
KAMRAS: No. More ideas that I would tell the president, I think we also need to do more in terms of providing additional social services for children. I think we don't give enough attention to all the other factors that impact learning, health, and mental well-being and jobs.
All of those things create the sort of social safety net that helps students come to the classrooms so that they're ready to learn. So I think that's something else that we need to put more emphasis on.
LAMB: And that's the national government's responsibility?
KAMRAS: Well, I think it's the responsibility of so many different players, but if I have the opportunity to have the federal government to play a role in that, then I would advocate for that, yes.
LAMB: So you grew up in Sacramento.
LAMB: Went to high school, a public school there?
KAMRAS: Public school.
LAMB: Went to Princeton.
LAMB: Have any trouble getting in?
KAMRAS: I'm sure -- I feel lucky to have gotten in, yes.
LAMB: Went to Harvard for your masters.
LAMB: Eight years here at John Philip Sousa.
LAMB: You created something called the Expose Program?
LAMB: What is that?
KAMRAS: It's a digital photography program that basically it's an afterschool program where my students learn to use digital cameras, computers, PhotoShop software, DVD creation software. And the idea is they go out and take pictures chronicling their lives and their stories, what they want to talk about. And they develop those into photo essays. And they accompany them with writing. And they're really incredible projects that they put together.
LAMB: So five classes, 20-some students, 100-some students every semester.
LAMB: How many of those actually put digital cameras in their hand and go out and do this?
KAMRAS: Probably about 15 to 20 per semester.
LAMB: Where do you get the cameras?
KAMRAS: After the grants.
LAMB: So do you keep the cameras yourself here?
KAMRAS: I do. But after they've been trained and developed responsibility with the cameras, they're signed out and they take them home.
LAMB: What's the benefit of that?
KAMRAS: It's another way for them to express themselves, to develop their writing, to give a voice to the things that they would like to say. And it's also a great to teach math. When we do -- when you're looking at angle of view with cameras, you're talking geometry.
When you're talking about pixel counts, pixels per inch, that's ratios. When you're talking about shutter speeds, that's fractional comparison. So it lends itself to the teaching of mathematics, which is also great.
LAMB: What do you do with the photography?
KAMRAS: We exhibit it in the city. We've had exhibits at the Capital Children's Museum and at some government offices as well as at the school. And we exhibit them on our Web site as well.
LAMB: What's a bad day for you?
KAMRAS: A bad day for me is when I feel that I didn't connect with my kids, that I felt like the lesson just didn't go well and I feel like I didn't achieve what I wanted to in the classroom that day.
LAMB: And how do you know that?
KAMRAS: I can see it from my kids. I can tell by doing oral assessment with them, by looking in their faces or hearing them, I didn't get it, or they get real anxious and antsy because it just didn't go well and they're confused.
LAMB: What do you think of No Child Left Behind and what is it?
KAMRAS: Well, it's the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the basic federal funding mechanism for elementary and secondary schools.
LAMB: And how has it impacted you directly, give us some specifics?
KAMRAS: Well, it creates a structure of standards for all schools and for all children.
LAMB: Who sets the standards?
KAMRAS: Set by the federal government -- by Congress.
LAMB: But, I mean, who actually tells you what the standards are for the math class?
KAMRAS: So essentially by the year 2014, the idea of the law is that all children will be achieving at proficiency on their state standardized test. And so what each state then does is look at where their students are currently and then create a series of targets to get to that goal.
And so our district has created those targets. And then we need to meet those targets each year to remain in compliance with the law.
LAMB: How does a kid in your class see that? In other words, they don't know about this, but when they sit down to take a test, what do they see that came from this No Child Left Behind Act?
KAMRAS: Well, one of the other parts of the act is ensuring what they call a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. And there's a great debate and I think that's a good thing about what makes a highly qualified teacher.
But in essence I think the objective is to ensure that every child has an excellent teacher with them every day. And so that might mean that in some classrooms where they were either underserved or perhaps there was a teacher that didn't necessarily have all subject matter training that they needed, that that might change, and that there will be a teacher that has all the training that they do need.
LAMB: Do you have tenure?
KAMRAS: We don't really have tenure in the school system.
LAMB: Not in the entire District of Columbia school system?
KAMRAS: Not that I'm aware of, but don't quote me on that.
LAMB: Can they fire you?
KAMRAS: Sure, I would imagine.
LAMB: What I was getting at is, if you have to have a qualified teacher in every classroom, and it's difficult in a lot of places to get rid of bad teachers.
KAMRAS: Well, there are mechanisms in place to evaluate teachers, as with any profession. And those can be used in respecting teachers' rights and to create a system where teachers -- all good teachers are in the school system.
LAMB: What do you think of the No Child Left Behind Act?
KAMRAS: Well, I think it has some great ideas and some great goals. I think setting the highest of expectations for students is a very important thing and is something that I do believe in to a great deal.
LAMB: But what don't you like about it?
KAMRAS: Well, it's not that I don't like, I think we need to support the law by supporting our students and investing our children to meet all those expectations, which isn't to say that I would wait around for additional money or resources. I'm committed to my students achieving today. And I think I have had a great deal of success with that.
But I think we could be so much -- we could have this achievement happen more quickly and be even more effective by continuing to invest in our children. So I want to be very clear about that. I do believe in increasing support resources for our children, as I mentioned before, as we move towards meeting those expectations.
At the same time, I'm not going to wait around, and I would never advocate to any teacher to wait around. We must do everything we can and be undaunted to achieve excellence for them today.
LAMB: What do you envision when you teach a seventh grader or a six grader -- what do you -- math, what do you envision them becoming?
KAMRAS: I envision becoming whatever it is they aspire to become. I don't have any -- you know, I don't push them into mathematical fields, but math is in a lot of ways sort of a gatekeeper subject. It determines whether you're going to -- you know, your achievement in math determines which high school you go to and which college you'll be able to go to.
And having a basic understanding of algebra and geometry is so important to so many different fields. And so I just want them to be fully prepared to pursue whatever it is that they want.
LAMB: Now you're about to go off in the fall -- or when do you actually start your tour?
KAMRAS: Well, a little bit has already started, but officially in June.
LAMB: What are the chances after a year you're going to come back to this school?
KAMRAS: A hundred percent
LAMB: What if you meet some incredible challenging opportunities as you travel the country for a year?
KAMRAS: Look, I can't foretell the future. But I know where my heart lies and what motivates me and what has brought me to where I am today. And that's my children and that's this school. So I have every intention of being back here.
LAMB: And how long do you expect to be a teacher?
KAMRAS: Well, I know I will be a teacher of some sort for the rest of my life. How long I will be in the classroom? I don't know. It could be five years, 10 years, I don't know. I think I would at some point like to perhaps lead a school and bring some of my ideas and passion on the school-wide level.
LAMB: Is there a different grade you want to teach?
KAMRAS: I like middle school. It's that nexus between childhood and young adulthood. And I think it's a very special age where you have some many different qualities coming out in children. And so I think this is where I would like to stay.
LAMB: And what do you find -- these kids in your class, what do they have as their own hopes and dreams for the future? What do they tell you they want to do?
KAMRAS: They want to be doctors and lawyers and teachers and astronauts and firemen and they want to be everything. They have the same dreams that all children do, of having a wonderful family and being successful and living in a nice house.
LAMB: What do you advise them?
KAMRAS: I advise them to never make any excuses, to always put their goals at the forefront, and to do everything that they need to do to get there.
LAMB: You have a "formula for success" up here on the wall. It's "(X + Y) - Z = Success!" What is X?
KAMRAS: X is determination. Y is hard work. So determination and hard work, minus X, which is excuses. So which is to say, I empathize with challenges that my children and all children face. And I will support in addressing those challenges, but I would never want the child to use any challenge as an excuse to not do their very best and to not be successful.
So I push them to be excellent and never fall behind. And I've found that they rise to that occasion.
LAMB: Do you find that people do want to make a lot of excuses?
KAMRAS: It's not that people want to make excuses, it's just that there are challenges that come up. And sometimes its difficult to overcome those challenges. And so you'll lean on something that's not going well as an excuse. And my advice to them is to just push forward, to keep pushing forward.
I'll support them to the end in dealing with any challenges that they face, of course. I just never want them to rely on this as an excuse for not being their best.
LAMB: This is a tough question for you to answer, why did you win the National Teacher of the Year Award?
KAMRAS: It is difficult because not only are all the state teachers of the year just so extraordinary, I had the opportunity to spend so much time with them, and I know it may sound like a cliche, but they really were incredible people, that had so many great ideas and their passion was evident with every word they spoke, and particularly the four finalists as well.
So honestly, I can say. I hope it was -- that my passion for students came through and that that was something that they wanted to honor.
LAMB: Besides your essays that your wrote, were you interviewed?
KAMRAS: Yes. There was a two-day interview process.
LAMB: What was the hardest thing about that?
KAMRAS: We did a lot of different things. There were panel interviews and videotaping the press conference -- mock press conferences, that sort of thing. I think the most challenging thing perhaps getting everything out that you wanted to say in all those different venues and finding a way to express yourself as best as possible.
LAMB: We're out of time. Jason Kamras, thank you and have a good year as the National Teacher of the Year.
KAMRAS: Thank you very much.