Spotlight: Steven Gamache (LA '19)January 16, 2020
English teacher Steven Gamache (LA ’19) thrives in the toughest educational environments. He and his principal are on their second school turnaround: “We are changing the trajectory for thousands of kids.” Steve won his Milken Award at Paul Habans Charter School in New Orleans on November 13, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: You are committed to working in turnaround environments. Why?
Steven Gamache (LA ’19): When I got into education, I made a vow to myself that if I ever ended up in a teaching position where I felt I was sort of interchangeable, I would leave and do something else. I don’t want to teach in a school or a district where it doesn’t matter who is in front of the kids because they have every advantage under the sun. That’s not to knock those schools or those districts, but I want to be where I can effect the most change, and, so far, this has been in turnaround schools.
My principal and I have worked together to turn around two schools. Each one went from an F to a C on the state’s report card in just two years. We are changing the trajectory for thousands of kids. The adults in our building are committed to our school’s mission, and that gives me energy to wake up and go to work every morning.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Steve: In college I became an English major because those were the classes I was most passionate about. As I started getting practical about how to use my degree, I thought back to pivotal English teachers I had in high school and college—teachers who helped me unlock a deeper meaning in a text or gave me the tools to see the world differently. Being an English teacher meant that I got to read, write and discuss books every day! It was like never leaving college. I always seek to create the accepting academic environments that I remember so fondly from my own experiences.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Steve: It was really hard. It took me forever to plan lessons. I would show up prepared after all of that work, and then things would never go as planned. Like most new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. Kids would avoid doing work, challenge me directly in front of the class, ignore me, you name it. I had fights and arguments in my room pretty frequently.
I didn’t work through a lot of that until switching schools—the school where I was teaching was shut down because it had been a failing school for too long. In my third year, Elisabeth LaMotte-Mitchell, my current principal, showed me how much expectations and accountability matter. At the time she was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the middle school where we taught. Her coaching and feedback helped me develop tremendously.
MFF: You left New Orleans for a few years to work in Boston. What brought you back?
Steve: I really missed the city, and my principal offered me a job at our current school. I saw it as a way to make a really big difference, again, in a city that I loved. In Boston I was working in a high-needs school, but the needs of students in Louisiana are much more life-or-death than they are for a kid growing up in a state like Massachusetts. It was that calling to go where I was needed most, and moving back to New Orleans just made sense.
MFF: What do you like about middle school students?
Steve: They are curious, enthusiastic, and capable of making incredibly intellectual insights. It’s a magical time in a kid’s life—it can really shape who he or she becomes later on. I’ve felt that with younger kids, I can’t go as deep intellectually, while high school students are, in a way, already the people they are going to become. Middle school is the perfect in-between.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Steve: I was shocked. Never in a million years did I think I would win an award like that. Whenever I’d seen teachers getting recognized on this scale in the past, I always thought: How nice! How do they pick these teachers?, not imagining it could one day be me. In the moment, it felt surreal, like it wasn’t actually happening, or like it was a dream. I was so nervous, I just remember thinking, Just walk, one step at a time. All you have to do is walk and shake some hands. Then they asked me to say a few words!
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Steve: They were all really excited. Kids I’ve never taught before in younger grades point me out in the hall as “the teacher that won all that money.” A lot of my current students have said they knew it would be me or that I deserve it. That’s really gratifying to hear.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Steve: The practical side of me wants to use part of it to pay off student loans. The fun side wants to use it for a vacation. I will probably do a little bit of both. Whatever is left over will most likely go towards the down payment on a house.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Steve: My 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Daly, will always stick with me. First, he’s a man, and I didn’t have many male teachers growing up. He was also hilarious and animated, which kept me engaged, but more importantly, he showed me that there is more to reading than memorizing what happens in a book. He introduced me to analysis and unlocking meaning, and it changed my life.
Later on, I had professors in graduate school who took it to the next level: Dr. Washburn, Dr. Kelsh and Dr. Bailey. They all saw education as a way to create a more equitable and just society. That was infectious for me when I was just starting to form my own philosophy about the purpose of education.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Steve: I think there are a lot of ways to define it, and they all serve a different purpose, but I believe that they all work together. Ultimately, I want every kid I teach to have opportunity and choice, which is a phrase that I borrow from my school’s mission statement. I don’t want to define success for my students, but I would be thrilled if they all got a college education.
At the bare minimum, I want them to have the education necessary to choose what they want to do in life. There’s nothing worse than feeling trapped in a job or a particular way of living. If they want to move across the country as an adult, I want them to have the opportunity to do that. If they want to switch careers after getting a few years’ experience, I want them to have the opportunity to do that. Passing standardized tests, improving on a reading assessment, mastering how to write an essay, delivering a speech—these are all stepping stones along the way to creating a life of opportunity and choice. I’m here to help them navigate.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Steve: I hope they remember that I made them think, I cared about them, and I made them laugh at least once—even if it was at me.
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