The Making of an Educator : Pupils Turned Him On to Teaching; Now It’s His Turn to Turn Them On

Times Staff Writer

In a soft-spoken voice to provide an acoustic balm for his students, Tim Suanico shepherded 29 second-graders at Zamorano Elementary School through three reading groups, a hands-on math lesson, a spelling quiz, a “hit-the-bottle” recess game, an art lesson in chalk drawing, and a chapter of the children’s classic “Stuart Little.”

He also comforted a little girl who developed a sudden nosebleed; kept track of several students scheduled for counseling, the dentist or detention; prepared for a parent conference, and noted little quirks in the behavior of a child or two that might indicate problems needing special attention before they get out of hand.

It was all in a day’s work for an elementary-school instructor, who is at once required to be teacher, parent, confidant, nurse and social worker, depending on circumstances that change from moment to moment.


But in the case of the 24-year-old Suanico, the deftness with which he orchestrated the class at Zamorano belied the fact that he was only in his first month of full-time teaching.

A Teacher Was Born

Only a year ago, the Philippine-born Suanico was without a career, having just completed a temporary stint as an hourly arts aide at the school, where the San Diego Unified School District has its special fine arts magnet instruction program.

Today, the UC San Diego visual arts graduate has his own class in Room 13, having become so turned on to education during his time as an aide that he spent the past academic year obtaining his teaching credentials from San Diego State University.

He has won rave reviews from his professors at San Diego State and his supervisors in the school district. They point to Suanico as the type of young person that the teaching profession must attract, both to boost its reputation and to improve instruction for the next generation of Americans, as called for in several major studies about the nation’s educational future.

“He is an exceptionally skilled teacher and I rank him in the top 5% of student teachers I have observed in 21 years,” David

Ford, professor in the SDSU School of Education, wrote in evaluating Suanico’s student teaching.

Ford and others praise Suanico for his teaching skills, for his flexibility and willingness to listen to suggestions, and--most of all--for his infectious enthusiasm and ability to motivate children.

“Tim’s a terrific example of what we hope for, since teaching has dropped to such a low status and no more are we looked up to,” said Kent K. Freeman, a veteran teacher at Angier Elementary who served as a master teacher for Suanico this past spring.

Good Marks From Pupils, Too

Even the pupils in his student teaching classes the past year found Suanico to be special.

“Because of how you teach, you make me want to go to school every day,” Catherine Trinidad, a second-grader at Zamorano, wrote Suanico in an unsolicited note of thanks last fall after he finished his first semester of student teaching in the SDSU program.

For his part, Suanico has had little time to bask in the praise that has come his way. Married on July 2, he and his wife, Sherrie, spent the next three days organizing bulletin board designs for his classroom as well as poring over lesson plans and teacher manuals one last time. The Suanicos estimate they have spent $500 in extra materials to get his class off to a fast start at the year-round school which began July 5.

But when pressed for his own evaluation, Suanico believes the success he has enjoyed so far stems from several influences: his own upbringing and the ethics of child-rearing his parents have passed on; certain courses at San Diego State which emphasized the practical side of teaching; and the willingness of his master teachers and new colleagues to share their expertise and stimulation.

“The real test, I think, is whether you like working with children or not,” Suanico said. “Teaching has to be in your nature. You have to get into it because you like it, not because there is no other choice.”

Suanico’s parents and a brood of nephews and nieces live only a strong playground yell away from Zamorano school, in the new suburban area of Paradise Hills near the South Bay Freeway. So it was fortuitous that Suanico saw a community newspaper story in early September, 1986, announcing the opening of the fine arts magnet school.

Suanico walked down Casey Street into Principal Rachel Flanagan’s office unsolicited the next day and offered his services.

“He had tons of talent and really blossomed quickly,” said Flanagan. “His personality and willingness to learn was incredible; he is like a sponge, and the kids at all different grade levels responded as well.”

Suanico at first helped catalogue and arrange art supplies, but quickly moved into working with students in the various art studios at Zamorano, as well as helping coordinate activities in the computer learning lab. By June of last year, Suanico was known as “Mr. S.” to almost every student at the school.

“I learned a lot about how you treat children in the classroom from all of that,” Suanico said last summer. “You can laugh and be close to the children yet distant enough to make sure that they respect you.

“At first, it was hard not to always be ‘buddy-buddy’ because they know that as an aide you don’t really discipline them or call their parents. But you want them to understand your authority. Besides, I find kids are really forgiving . . . you can discipline them and they’ll forget five minutes later.

“The important thing is to show that you care the whole time.”

The chance to experience the school environment before committing to a teaching career is still reaping benefits for Suanico because of the background it provided prior to entering graduate school. He has told a cousin who is interested in teaching to try to find an aide position for six months to a year for the same experiences.

“Tim’s situation definitely argues for maybe something like an intern program, to allow someone to get exposure to schools with no strings attached,” Flanagan said. “I’ve found the same situation has worked for a couple of other people I’ve hired for positions such as counseling and in the library.”

Suanico’s soft-spoken demeanor developed from his student teaching last fall in the second-grade class of master teacher Betty Bogomaz at Zamorano. In one lesson, he was going over new vocabulary from a short story about Amy and Mark who had gotten into an argument despite being good friends.

“Amy was taller than Mark after she came back from summer camp so the friendship was hurt for awhile,” Suanico whispered loudly to one reading group in using a new word in a sentence.

When the stint ended in mid-December, Suanico credited Bogomaz with showing him how to minimize classroom stress and maintain organization.

“She taught me that if your voice gets louder, then the whole class gets louder,” Suanico said at the time. “She showed that I should stay at a normal voice level and only raise your voice occasionally to have an effect. When I was an aide in the computer lab, I felt sometimes the whole school could hear me.”

In conducting reading groups at three different levels, Suanico came to appreciate the different rates at which children learn.

“You can pick out fairly quickly who learns faster,” Suanico said. “What I found out is that you must monitor and really be aware of those who are not getting the material. Maybe you assign a kid who is getting it to be a tutor for the other child, or other strategies. But I don’t want the children to feel pressured, but instead I want them to have time to learn.

“My frustration still is whether I am communicating the material sufficiently to the kids. I keep worrying about that. But then I see Mrs. Bogomaz so enthusiastic about all the years that she has taught and that means so much stimulation to me.”

Bogomaz had few worries about Suanico in her December evaluation, calling him highly competent. She particularly liked the games and work sheets that Suanico developed on his own, including “Spellopoly” where children compete on a board game by picking words and spelling them correctly.

In Suanico’s reading methods course at San Diego State, the budding teachers were assigned projects to stimulate elementary students through use of varied reading materials other than basic textbooks. Instructor Sandra Golden also spent considerable time introducing the class to libraries and resource centers where supplementary items can be easily obtained.

“I think the class really helped expose us to the types of things being used in teaching,” Suanico said. “I knew what and how manuals are used, how you develop a skills lesson to be followed by reteaching, so we would have some preparation before starting teaching.”

Suanico similarly praised a course on educational psychology for making specific references to classroom situations and a class on physical education for teaching actual games to be tried on the playground. He said another course in children’s literature and puppetry forced education school students to think about presenting material in verse and through storytelling, “in ways that we might not otherwise think about.”

But there were other courses that Suanico found less than useful, especially various methods courses in music and other subjects which he said involve “theories or scenario assignments on paper” that may or may not work later in the classroom.

Education schools throughout the nation have come under fire in the past several years for not being rigorous enough in their curriculum, for not weeding out potentially poor teachers more actively, and for not conducting enough research into what proves best in the classroom.

But Suanico found the lack of student teaching time--”practical application”--to be the major shortcoming of education school during his yearlong study for a credential.

“For example, instead of showing how a single assignment is put together, there could be more specifics on how to put together complete lesson plans for two or three weeks at a time, because now I find out that when a student leaves on trip for a couple of weeks, you have to provide those plans for the parents,” Suanico said.

He said that the required class on ethnicity should offer specifics on acclimating different ethnic groups into a learning environment instead of simply telling future teachers that they are going to encounter students who do not understand English or who come from foreign countries.

“In student teaching, you are trying out different strategies, learning from the master teacher and finding out what works and doesn’t work, seeing styles of classroom management, so you won’t come out fresh from the university into your own class and be unfamiliar with proven methods,” Suanico said.

“The more student teaching, the better. Now it’s like taking organic chemistry at UCSD and looking at the textbook and seeing the chemical compounds and the chemical bonding, without ever being put in the lab and watching the actual reactions.”

No class at the education school stressed parent contacts, Suanico said, although increasingly educators across the country are emphasizing the role of parents in providing the support that often can mean the difference between mediocrity and excellence in a student’s educational career.

“We never had a parent come as a speaker, for example,” Suanico said. In his own class now, he sends home nightly assignments for both the students and their parents to work on together, an idea that Bogomaz gave him from her own “home education” project.

“If I had a choice between having more courses or more student teaching, I would pick more student teaching any day, especially if I could have the master teachers that I did,” Suanico said.

“So much depends on them.”

Suanico’s horizons and understanding about different teaching methods expanded significantly during his second-semester student teaching in Kent Freeman’s fifth-grade class at Angier Elementary in Serra Mesa.

“At first, it was really confusing to me,” Suanico said during a break at Angier in May. “I had this idealization that all schools were like Zamorano, and here I was comparing a second grade to a fifth grade. But I found out that there are totally different backgrounds and environments from school to school and from grade to grade.

“I was in a second-grade class at Zamorano, all quiet and peaceful, and then at Angier I see kids write notes to each other and move around the classroom, and I realized that learning is going on in a different way.

“I definitely believe that student teachers should be placed at schools with different personalities . . . that is very important.”

Freeman gave Suanico a lot of time alone with his Angier class, saying that Suanico’s only weakness was a lack of experience, “of being on the firing line.

“I want to give him every opportunity to try things, even though he already has an unusual grasp of what it takes to be effective, coupled with a natural empathy for the kids.”

For example, Suanico conducted his first parent conference with Freeman’s assent, working successfully with the mother of a bright but poorly performing student so that the child would focus more on class work. And he gave out his first suspension when weeks of patience failed in attempts to curb another student’s aggressive behavior.

Using his artistic background, Suanico devised a math project in May for the class to learn fractions and scale measurement by designing a house on paper. He designated 1 inch as 10 feet, and then let the students go from there.

Two-thirds of the students immediately grasped the challenge and whipped out ruler and pencil to begin their “dream house” while the other one-third raised their right hands almost simultaneously for further explanation.

Suanico patiently moved from desk to desk, trying not to spoon-feed the lesson but instead describe the project in a different way. He later expressed surprise at the number of students who were unsure of how to use a ruler.

“I would have never dreamed that the ruler could be such a problem for kids,” he said.

Suanico was impressed with the extra time Freeman spent in providing additional resources for the class, such as bringing in large boxes filled with children’s literature bought by Freeman that the students could rummage through and borrow when they had free time.

“I really discovered that learning has to be discovery on the part of students in the upper grades, that you lead them but not control them,” Suanico said.

Suanico was nervous on July 5.

“Not so much because of the children, per se, but because I wondered whether I would be able to pace myself, and whether I really would be able to plan for the next day, and the next day after that, and so on,” Suanico worried.

After the first day, Suanico realized that even his unusually broad experiences in student teaching had not prepared him fully for the stack of administrative paper work that a regular teacher faces from day to day. He found himself poring over manuals that first night to hone his lesson plans further so that more class time could be spent directly with students.

“But I love it,” he said, even though he is still working a 15-hour day that includes the time spent at home grading papers, drawing up art lessons, and reviewing student records, or shopping for records and games for enrichment. And all that work for about $18,000, which is what Suanico can expect to make his first year.

“Tim is not going to be a perfect teacher at first, which is natural, and he’ll go through a continued learning process,” Principal Flanagan said. “But I know that he will work at the job, will talk to teachers, and will grow quickly.

“I’d rather have that than somebody who knows it all but doesn’t have a zest for kids.”

Times staff writer David Smollar followed Tim Suanico’s preparation for his teaching career over the last 12 months.

FO Tim Suanico helps Joseph Hill on his writing journal while student teaching at Zamorana Elementary last December.