This month, we were thrilled – but not surprised – to learn that Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles teacher Florence Avognon had been named as a California Teacher of Year. Throughout her 18-year career, Avognon has been the kind of educator who truly knows how to tap into students’ potential. Here, she shares the teaching philosophy that enables her to motivate and empower our kids.
PH: You’ve talked about Luis Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running. Rodriguez felt he was simply fulfilling everyone’s negative assumptions by joining a gang; how does this story impact the way you teach students at the Academy?
FA: Like Mr. Rodriguez, these kids have been defined as failures for so long by the outside world that they immediately respond to positive reinforcement. My students loved this book because it seemed like Mr. Rodriguez was telling their own stories; it had such a profound impact that I arranged to take 20 students to meet him. The book also allowed me to make similar connections with classical literature because, believe it or not, even our old storytellers dealt with struggles and conflicts. My students were then better able to grasp the literature content by making personal connections. Always Running is a book in the voice of those who believed they were voiceless.
PH: You’ve also discussed your belief that “teaching is beyond the classroom.” Why is this concept so important for the students at the Academy?
FA: I have this image of a pyramid that has worked for me for many years. It shows the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. I tell my kids that the beautiful thing about America is that anyone can move up, but there’s only two ways you can do that: education or skills. This concept works well with my students because they begin to think, “Well, if I can’t swing college, I can get a certificate to be a plumber or a welder or a mechanic.” Of course, I know that if I didn’t stick with my own education I’d still be on welfare like my mom—but I also want to address the reality that many of our kids don’t feel comfortable on a long academic track. One of the realities of connecting my classroom to the community is helping kids see where they might fit in. They don’t have to give up, and they don’t have to do anything illegal. It’s about letting them know they have options.
PH: One of your former students who is now a colleague said that you would often tell your students stories about your own educational journey.
FA: My journey, like so many others, started in a single-parent household. I went to Crenshaw High, which was the high school that was supposed to be represented in the movie Boyz in the Hood. After two years at Los Angeles City College, I literally had $50 left from an Equal Opportunity scholarship and I went to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University. I tell my students this story all the time: it was January, it was snowing, and the university actually told me to go back to California because I hadn’t gotten financial aid approval or dorm approval. I was at my wit’s end, and they sent me to the President’s office…where his assistant signed off for me to start college! So I stayed. I worked several jobs and I ended up getting a full fellowship to Columbia University because of my grades and an essay I had written. When I finished Columbia I came back to Crenshaw High School, my alma mater, to teach. I stayed there for nine years. Coming from where I did, I understand how easy it can be for my students to be negative—because there’s just so much negativity around them at home and in society. So to be an example of someone who defied that negativity is monumental for me.
PH: How do you undo students’ lack of faith in their own potential?
FA: First of all, you have to do it by small steps. I have a kid who kept saying, “I don’t know anything, Ma’am.” But it turns out this guy reads wonderfully. So you begin with where they are, and you show them where they are – because they don’t even know where they are – and then you take them to bigger and better places. Those small steps are what gives kids confidence, and we know that achieving that confidence and self-esteem is a huge struggle for teens all over America—probably all over the world.
PH: What are some of your favorite stories of Academy students turning “I can’t” into “I can”?
FA: I have a Special Ed student who always thought, “I can’t.” Well, he just read three novels in four weeks! He is so proud of himself, and all of the teachers and staff at Phoenix House have told me that how much his attitude has improved. And that’s just one example. It all begins with attitude shifts; when your attitude changes, your capacity to improve changes. I’m here simply to say, “There’s no negativity in this room—all that negativity that you had in the streets, I won’t allow it in my room.” If teaching is your mission, you become counselor and advocate and educator and advisor all in one capacity.
PH: What is the one lesson you hope your students will take with them when they leave your classroom?
FA: Of course, I want them to take the literacy skills. I want them to know how far literacy can take them. I mean, I won a fellowship because I wrote a one-page essay about why I wanted to teach—that’s the type of thing they can do, too. I want them to know that the more effective they are at communicating, the more opportunities they’ll have in their lives. As for life skills, when kids tell me about a conflict they’re having, I say, “Well, you can’t change other people. But who can you change?” I want them to remember that they are completely in control of their own lives and their own choices.
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