Attending public schools his entire life, Daniel Jocz saw firsthand the disparity of educational experiences.
"As a student, I could walk into one class and be inspired and challenged, and in the next, I could be ignored, bored — and one day, even my teacher snored," recalled Jocz, who attended classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"As a student in the '90s, I remember the principal caring more about our pants being too baggy, than if the instruction we received was preparing us for the future," he said. "These experiences inspired me to want to become a teacher who would not only elevate student learning, but also the teaching profession."
The journey to fulfill his dream involved hourlong bus rides to UCLA, and working full time to pay his tuition.
"As the first in my family to go to college, I never dreamt I would graduate magna cum laude from UCLA with a degree in history, and follow it up with a master's thesis entitled 'Culturally Responsive Education: No Culture Left Behind.'"
Jocz chose the UCLA Teacher Education Program because of its reputation for focusing on issues of equality, access and social justice.
"For me, there is no other way in which to approach the difficult task of teaching," he said.
For the past 11 years, Jocz has taught studies and advanced placement U.S. history at Downtown Magnets High School the Los Angeles Unified School District. This year, he was named California State Teacher of the Year, and is a 2016 national teacher of the year finalist.
"As a historian specializing in the study of American history, I have always felt that the only true way in which to authentically teach history is to include all perspectives and groups," he said.
His instruction has been featured in the Los Angeles Times for including LGBT issues in his history curriculum, and he also wrote an op-ed piece for The Huffington Post entitled "Black History is American History, All Year Round."
"Growing up I was frustrated with the unfortunate tendency to exclude the stories of various groups in teaching the nation's past," Jocz said. "The experience of African-Americans, women, immigrants, workers, the poor and LGBT individuals is American history. To not teach this history year-round is to do a disservice to our nation's rich, complicated past. This is why I committed my life to teaching history in an urban public school setting."
One of the greatest lessons he has learned as he had advanced in the teaching profession is the importance of "forever remaining a student."
"This philosophy has not only led to some of my greatest professional accomplishments, but has also had a tremendous impact on student learning," said Jocz, who has participated in seven international professional programs in which he worked with teachers and students from around the world, including Korea, South Africa, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Indonesia and Rwanda.
"These experiences have proved invaluable in broadening my own world outlook, and thus my curriculum as well," he said.
Traveling to the home countries of many of his students' families has allowed him to connect with parents on a more meaningful level, create service learning and leadership activities that are relevant to students' own lives, and engage with colleagues from around the world in shaping the profession as teacher leaders and advocates.
"My experiences abroad re-energize my curriculum with new ideas and perspectives and allow students to see that learning is a lifelong process that even their own teachers must embark on," Jocz said.
He noted research that indicates the most important predictor of student success is the presence of a highly effective teacher in the classroom.
"I can think of few other professions in which your impact is directly felt each day by so many," Jocz said. "As a teacher, you have the opportunity to prepare students for jobs that haven't even been created yet, awaken passions students never knew they had and inspire them to travel places they never dreamt (they'd) see."
The rapidly changing world has made the job of a teacher in some ways even more challenging and exciting than it was in the past, he said.
"As a teacher, you have an obligation to prepare students for a truly global interconnected world facing numerous opportunities and challenges," Jocz said. "Beyond just preparing students to be college and career ready, you get the opportunity to engage remarkable young people in the art of critical thinking and problem solving. As a teacher, you have the ability to transform not only your students' lives but your own."