Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2010

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The Value of Education

Jane's parents always valued education. That they did not enjoy the kind of educational experiences they would have preferred was due to circumstance, not intent.

Growing up in Canton, China, Jane's father had his education interrupted in the sixth grade by the turmoil of World War II. When the war ended eight years later, he was too old to return to elementary school and resume his formal education.

Even so, he remained an avid reader.

"I always remember him reading Chinese newspapers and Chinese adventure books," said Jane.

The war disrupted Jane's mother's education as well, as her family moved from place to place and schools constantly closed. She eventually managed to finish high school at the age of 22. After marrying Jane's father and moving to Fresno, Jane's mother enrolled in ESL classes, trying to improve her English until the demands of work and raising five children forced her to quit.


Photos courtesy of Jane Ching Fung

Although Jane knew from an early age that she wanted to spend her life working with children, being a teacher was not her first choice. Perhaps because of an attitude prevalent in the Asian immigrant community that teaching was not as prestigious a career choice as law or medicine, she did not consider it an option—until she entered college.

"My first year, I had a work-study job on campus at the preschool," she said. "I fell in love with that age. And I found that's what I wanted to do."

She changed her major to Child Development and set her sights on teaching preschool.

The First Year

Research has found early childhood to be a critical stage in ensuring the future educational success of children. Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken himself emphasized the importance of early childhood education in his speech at the 1997 Milken National Education Conference, "For Ourselves and Our Posterity," when he said, "The innate desire of a child to know is so intense that it will blaze his way through a period of development second to none in its impact on how he'll proceed through life."

For Jane, it's also the wonderment of that time in children's lives that led her to specialize in early childhood education.

"At that age, it's all about discovery," she said. "It's not about, 'What letter is this?' but 'Wow, this Play-Doh feels squishy!' When you see a three-year-old make a picture or build something, it's such a great feeling."

After graduating from San Diego State, Jane was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) on an emergency credential to teach first grade at Lakeview Terrace Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley. Despite her lack of training in teaching above kindergarten level, California's severe teacher shortage made LAUSD desperate to hire new teachers. She accepted the job, moved to Los Angeles and began her assignment.

Three weeks later, she and six other teachers lost their jobs due to a reorganization.

Scrambling to find another assignment, she began team-teaching a third grade class at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima. Teaching three grades higher than her training had prepared her for, she found her first year in the classroom enormously challenging.

"That was probably the hardest year of my whole life," she said. "I tried to resign. I knew this was not good for kids. I was not credentialed and these kids deserved better."

Her mentor convinced her that leaving her students would be worse than staying. So she stayed, taking district-offered staff development classes every weekend in addition to credentialing classes at night.

Despite the difficulty of that first year, it left her feeling revitalized, largely because of the bonds she had formed with her young students. She still gets emotional talking about them.

"By the end, we were like a family," she said.

Learning Her Craft

"Looking back," Jane said of her first year of teaching, "I could have taken them so much further if I knew what I was doing."

After two more years at Broadous, Jane decided it was time to learn teaching the right way. She resigned from the district, returned to Fresno and became a student teacher.

Jane with students from her first preschool class at San Diego State University (photo courtesy of Jane Ching Fung)

Though she had finished her credentialing coursework and had three years of teaching experience under her belt, she felt she had missed out on student teaching. For her, taking a step back meant moving forward as an educator.

"I missed out on watching somebody and having somebody watch me," she said.

One year later, after student teaching with two outstanding teachers—one in kindergarten and the other in the sixth grade—she felt she was finally ready to be a teacher.

According to Jane, her student teaching experience did more than prepare her for the profession. It helped her realize she had a passion for teaching, that it was indeed a noble and important profession and undoubtedly what she wanted to do with her life. These were feelings she hadn't had during her time at Broadous.

"After student teaching," said Jane, "I had the confidence of having had a really good teacher watch me and say, 'You're really good at this. This is a gift you can give to kids.' My passion grew and I thought, 'This is what I want to commit myself to.'"

Expanding Her Professionalism

Returning to Los Angeles, Jane secured a position at the White House Place Primary Center, where she taught kindergarten through second grade for 11 years, the first three under the leadership of Rowena Lagrosa, a woman she calls "the most amazing principal that ever could be."

It was at White House Place that the boundaries of Jane's definition as a teacher began to expand. In her first year, Jane wrote and received her first grant, providing White House Place with its first computers. She began presenting some of her instuctional strategies and literacy activities at conferences, something she has done many times since.

And only a few years after her student teaching experience had been such a turning point for her, Jane became a master teacher herself, with student teachers of her own. Meanwhile, her classroom became a model for other teachers to observe.

"It just kept snowballing," she said. "The more you do, the more you do!"

In 1994, Dr. Laurie Macgillvaray, a researcher at the University of Southern California, approached Jane with the prospect of conducting action research in her classroom. For three years, Jane taught with Dr. Macgillvaray's presence constantly in the room, a situation that soon proved to be a powerful and valuable experience.

"Looking back," Jane said of her first year of teaching, "I could have taken them so much further."

"By the second year," said Jane, "she was telling me things about my kids that I wasn't able to see because she was there only to observe. It was so powerful that I started becoming interested in doing research on my own."

The experience helped her understand the value of reflecting about her practice and critiquing her own methods and techniques.

"I think it's really easy for us to give reasons why kids don't succeed," she said. "It's harder when you have to look at yourself and say, 'What can I do in my power and the best of my ability to do this?' It takes more work, but the rewards are amazing."

Returning to school at California State University, Los Angeles, she received training as a Reading Recovery teacher and earned a master's degree in reading and language arts. A year later, she earned National Board Certification in Early Childhood.

Teacher as Researcher

In just a few years, the teacher who had once felt out of her depth teaching third grade had become a master teacher, guiding the instructional practices of younger, less experienced teachers. At the same time, however, she wanted to continue the process of learning from those with more experience. She soon found such an opportunity.

In 1997, Jane joined the Teachers Network Policy Institute (TNPI), a project of the nationwide Teachers Network aimed at improving student achievement "by bringing the teachers' voice to education policymaking" and "closing the gap" between education policymakers and the "teachers who are charged with implementing that policy."

Meeting once a month with 10 veteran teachers and researchers, Jane found the challenging professional environment she had been seeking.

"It was the most intimidating group I'd ever been in," she said. "They were all more experienced than I was, more accomplished."

It wasn't long, however, before Jane felt more invigorated than intimidated. In 1998, she conducted her first action research for the TNPI, focusing on new teacher collaboration. She presented this research at a Teachers Network summer institute. Eventually it was published in a book, Taking Action with Teacher Research.

The Surprise Award

In 2001, Jane left White House Place Primary Center, a school for which she says she has "a very fond place in my heart" because it was "where I learned to teach." Hoping to take greater advantage of professional development opportunities offered in the summer, Jane began teaching at a school with a traditional schedule, including summer vacations.

She taught first grade at El Sereno Elementary School for one year, but discovered that the year-round schedule at White House Place had actually given her more time for professional development. So she left El Sereno and began teaching at Lafayette Park Primary Center, an all-kindergarten school with a year-round schedule near downtown Los Angeles.

"It's a feeling you'll never forget when you hear your name called," she said. "After Lowell left, I was still shaking."

One sunny afternoon, about two months after starting at Lafayette Park, Jane and her fellow teachers were required to attend a schoolwide assembly involving state and local dignitaries and a special surprise guest.

The guest was Lowell Milken, and by the end of that day, Jane had become a Milken Educator: $25,000 richer and famous in her community.

"It's a feeling you'll never forget when you hear your name called," she said. "After Lowell left, I was still shaking."

The next day, the students in her morning class who had missed the previous day's Award announcement came to school full of excitement, newspaper clippings and congratulation cards in hand. A little Korean boy named Jamie ran up to her and said, "Daddy read about you in the Korean paper! Mommy says you're the best teacher!"

After the Award

As is the case with many Milken Educators, Jane's Award brought her numerous professional opportunities. She was invited to participate in a series of focus groups organized by the Milken Family Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education to discuss a new teacher induction program. She was also selected to serve on the board of the Independent Citizens for California's Children (IC3) along with fellow Milken Educator Kirk Brown (CA '99).

"The experience was great, because I got to talk to district superintendents all over California about what they were thinking of doing politically," said Jane.

In her second year at Lafayette Park, Jane learned of yet another opportunity. LAUSD was about to open a state-of-the-art, inquiry-based charter school they had been developing for over a decade, called the Science Center School (recently named the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School, after a highly respected educator in LAUSD). Jane had heard about this proposed school for years, and though she had intended to stay longer at Lafayette Park, this was an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

"I had always wondered about it," said Jane. "It's a school where you are expected to teach children and not programs. Also, I wanted to try teaching at a charter school. And I wanted the K–5 experience at a big school. And that's where I am."

Characteristics of a Good Teacher

Much has changed in the decade and a half since Jane first began teaching. Perhaps what has changed most throughout Jane's educational career is Jane herself: from being an unsure novice thrust into a challenging classroom to being a thoughtful, experienced advocate and practitioner of research-based instruction.

On the other hand, some things have not changed about Jane at all: her passion for the profession and her love of children.

In 2003, she conducted an action research study for the TNPI in which she interviewed 340 students, from preschoolers to high school seniors, asking them to define the characteristics of a good teacher.

Among the results she published in June 2004 were the responses of early primary students. "All early primary students," wrote Jane, "felt that good teachers should be nice. They admire educators that were kind, respectful and helped take care of their personal needs. Preschool and kindergarten students viewed good teachers as caretakers."

Add "hard-working," "research-based," "highly effective" and "passionate," and you have a perfect description of Jane Ching Fung.


For more information, contact Jane Fung at


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