Class Acts: A Q&A with Tamra McCarthy

Sal Jimenez nominated Tamra McCarthy for Class Acts. Jimenez said McCarthy is the hardest-working teacher he ever had the privilege of knowing. The Enochs High School yearbook has been nominated for major awards under her leadership, Jimenez added.

• Name: Tamra McCarthy

• Age: 34

• City of residence: Modesto

• Occupation: English instructor, journalism adviser

• Family: Husband Jim McCarthy (teacher at Grace Davis High School); son, Iain, 4

• Education background: Humboldt State University, bachelor's degree in English, teaching credential in English and in dance

• Teaching experience: Humboldt County, substitute; Downey High School, teaching English and speech and advising the Knights Herald; Enochs High School, teaching American literature and advising award- winning yearbook Wingspan.

Why did you get into teaching? Teachers have always championed me. As a child I had a troubled home life and school was my sanctuary. Throughout elementary, junior high and high school, teachers mentored me, loved me, showed me compassion, believed in me, recognized my talent and intelligence and made me feel safe to be myself. I thrived in school, so there was no other option for me than to become what had always inspired me to live.

What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? Seeing when the light comes on in a student's mind or when they moan about a project when I first introduce it and then come up after finishing the project to tell me how much they loved doing it. I love their curiosity for life and the vulnerability they are willing to share when we are doing an assignment or discussing an issue that is meaningful and real.

What is the most challenging part of your job? Grading papers. I love teaching, but I hate the bureaucratic paperwork.

What's next in your classroom? An essay assignment called "This I Believe," a project adapted from Edward R. Murrow's radio broadcast "This I Believe" from 1950. It's a powerful unit because kids are forced to really step outside their comfort zone to explore who they are and what they believe based on the experiences that have shaped their lives.

What advice do you have for parents? Talk to your kids. Have dinner with them every night. Know what they love and desire in life and help them achieve it.

What will it take to improve academic success in the valley? It starts with retaining teachers -- 517 teachers in Modesto City Schools received layoff notices, 40 of whom work at Enochs High School. Our teaching staff is composed of many young, energetic, engaging and passionate teachers. Unfortunately, they are also on the frontlines for layoffs. We can't improve education unless we have innovative, engaging, dynamic and passionate teachers in the classroom inspiring our students to excel.

How do you reach students not interested in school? I try to be interesting, to be available, to be relevant. But when that doesn't work, I approach those kids on an individual basis and try to connect with them. Sometimes just asking them what's important to them can open the door of communication. I'm very demanding of my students, but I'm consistent and honest and approachable and I think that for most students not interested in school, they are at least intrigued by my enthusiasm and want to have a part of it.

What one area should schools put more emphasis on? Extracurricular activity. As a yearbook adviser, I recognize how important school can be for kids who feel they have purpose and value.

If you could change one thing about the current educational system, what would it be and why? Less focus on testing. If the state put as much time, energy and money into programs that allow teachers to work collaboratively developing strategies and curriculum that improves student performance, then perhaps the scores they want to improve would naturally improve.

What would surprise people about your job? I actually earn my summer break! As an English teacher and yearbook adviser, I put in thousands more hours than I am paid to put in and I do it for my students.