My first experience in front of a classroom was seven years ago. I was 22, fresh out of college and beginning my two-and-a-half year service as a Peace Corps volunteer at a school in Pocrí, a 300-person village on the Pacific coast of Panama.

I had no experience teaching.

Learning-Curve-2017My counterpart, a Panamanian English teacher who spoke no English, left me alone in the room to chat on the phone with his wife shortly after first period started. This was a position I found myself in frequently in my first year in Panama – alone in a classroom filled with students – and I was woefully unprepared.

Before I describe just how useless a teacher I was that first year, I should tell you a bit more about my school. It wasn’t like most in Panama.

The school included pre-K to ninth grade. There were only three teachers for pre-K to sixth grade. Pre-K and kindergarten were with one teacher, and the other two had three grades each in their classrooms.

The communities around the school were poor and agricultural, so middle school enrollment was tiny. To stay open, the school accepted residential students from other parts of the country.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The problem was that no one from outside the community wanted to attend my tiny, crappy school.

That meant that the students we hosted were from larger cities and more affluent families, and they had already been kicked out of three or four schools for behavioral issues. My school was the only one that would take them because it was desperately trying to keep its doors open.

Nearly all the teachers, staff and administration were also from outside of my community.

In Panama, teachers can be sent anywhere in the country. Teachers accumulate points over their careers, based on the number of degrees they have, the number of years they’ve been teaching and the number of conferences and trainings they attend. Every year they apply for positions that they want and the candidate with the most points gets the job – unless of course they know someone, but that’s a different story.

The result: Many of the teachers at my school were inexperienced and unmotivated, biding their time until they could move to a better school.

As you can imagine, my first year was a disaster.

I couldn’t get anything done.

Students would draw in their notebooks while I spoke. They would unabashedly talk while I was speaking. They simply wouldn’t do things I asked. Some walked in and out of the classroom to greet their peers in the hall in the middle of class. And, of course, there were the students who threw paper balls – and their backpacks – at each other.

One day, mid-lecture, a student accidentally put his head through a Plexiglas window while trying to holler at a girl outside.

I was very relieved when the first summer break came.

I had my parents send me a care package full of books on teaching. I spent my summer poring over them, lesson-planning and making posters and materials. I needed a foundation.

The next year went a lot better.

I knew I needed to establish rules in my classroom from day one and enforce them consistently. I knew not to just stand in front of the room talking at my students. I knew how to structure a lesson plan and constantly evaluate whether all my students were understanding at various points. I knew to cold call kids instead of constantly going to the kids who would raise their hands for answers.

Understanding the basics made all the difference.

In the last six months of my service, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in a neighboring community and I received a grant from the Peace Corps to put on seminars around the country for elementary school teachers who taught in multi-grade classrooms. We both ended up extending our time in Panama, training them on how to better teach math, English and reading in Spanish.

We also gave seminars on classroom management and social and emotional learning – something that isn’t even discussed in education in Panama.

I came a long way in two and a half years.


After two years of covering housing and land use issues around San Diego County, I’m switching to the education beat.

I’m specifically going to focus on educational justice and equity issues. That means that I’m working to ensure that students from low-income neighborhoods, English-learners and students with disabilities have equal access to quality educational opportunities.

But jumping straight into covering big systemic issues like that is kind of like being thrown into my own classroom with highly disadvantaged and at-risk youth with no teacher training. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

That’s why I need your help – and hopefully in the process, I can help you in return. I need you, our readers, to help me ask questions.

I can’t investigate educational justice issues without understanding all the fundamentals and building blocks of our public education system.

And I plan to use The Learning Curve to help me get up to speed. I’m not only going to build my own foundation, but help answer and explain anything that you want to know.

Chances are if you need a question answered about schools, I need to know that answer, too.

So whether there’s a department or program you need explained or a federal education policy you want to learn about, send all your questions about schools my way. You can send your questions to me by e-mail at You can also tweet at me: @msrikris.

And every Thursday, I’ll have an answer to one of those questions for you, so that we can all learn together.

Local Ed News

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, San Diego Unified adopted its budget for next year and its Local Control and Accountability Plan – a document where it lays out how the funds it spends will help meet its goals for the upcoming year. I tried to figure out how to track funds that are specifically meant for vulnerable students, but couldn’t figure out with certainty where the majority of the dollars went.

The school board also voted to form a committee on Tuesday night to review the district’s graduation rate. We’ve raised some questions about how those rates are calculated.

The district’s plan to purge district emails older than six months starting July 1 was put on hold by the school board Tuesday night. Board members voted unanimously to have Superintendent Cindy Marten produce a report that analyzes the district’s public records process and its cost, and compares it to e-mail retention policies at other school districts.

VOSD’s Ashly McGlone also dove further into the district’s layoffs this week, as Marten announced updated layoff numbers Tuesday, with a Fact Check that found the district has more staffers but fewer students.

Ed Reads of the Week

• The GOP health care bill could cut an estimated $4 billion in Medicaid spending that goes to schools to help students with disabilities and poor students each year. (Washington Post)

• A very disturbing study found that adults tend to think of black girls as less innocent than white girls, which could lead to stiffer disciplinary action against them in schools. (Associated Press)

• Two new studies on voucher programs were released this week. The first found that Indiana students who used vouchers to transfer from public to private schools initially saw drops in math scores, but many improved over time. The second, which looked at Louisiana’s voucher program, also found that students tend to falter at first, but improve by their third year in the program.

• The $125 billion California budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown Tuesday gives a $3.1 billion boost to K-12 schools and community colleges. (Associated Press)

• Re-upping this excellent investigation from last week into how the change in California school funding has had little to no impact on closing the achievement gap. (CALMatters)

• My girl Rihanna was calling out world leaders on Twitter, imploring them to spend more money on education. (HuffPost)

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, The Learning Curve

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The story of education in California is a story of a "push and pull" of very strong interests. The ones in the middle have been and are the teachers and the students. So, level one is that thousands of teachers work in California. Although, they are, essentially, paid with tax dollars, they work for a myriad of school districts, school boards. The issues are, at once, the same and different: kids need to learn and kids need to learn more. 

       Level two has to do with what kids should learn and when. Easy? No.  The public wants things taught its way. And, the public wants the learning now. ...not so easy. 

        Level three has to do with the cost of education. Answer? In my qualified opinion, more money should be spent.  The dollars and cents people(public) wants "more" for their dollars, with "more" being undefined. After that the spectrum of ideas and opinions range and rage.  From my point of view, some people and their children will never be satisfied with a public school experience. Unfortunately, this last group has been gaining ground for almost 40 years leading to the current milieu of charter schools and private online alternatives. It is my assessment that charters, of any kind, and online private schools should not be sponsored with public dollars. And, my reasons are clear.

    1. public schools have been well underfunded for decades

    a. special ed gets less than 17% of the expected 40% mandated by Congress

    b. building structures and infrastructure updates and renovations have been in "deferred maintenance" for decades in favor of new fangled wired and wireless electronics

    c. curriculum printed is outdated by the point of distribution

       -the cost of text books has skyrocketed over the last 30 years

      -the content of the curriculum hasn't kept up with the latest state requirements

    2. contrary to some popular opinions the cost of personnel has not risen exponentially as a percentage of the total education budget. What people see is that on a "pie chart" personnel is, by far, the biggest expense. What people forget is that personnel allocations are in the "bare bones" category.

    3. People have been clamoring for better results from learning ever since I Ieft my k-12 experience many moons(about 47 years ago). I'm still scratching my head over this from my experience. Everyone in my class graduated from high school with acceptance letters in hand to major universities. And, the high schools around where I grew up are still rated top in the nation.  

         So, are there problems in education today? Yes. But, the public schools don't deserve the heavy artillery  pointed at it. The private school people don't want to pay for their specialized schools and the charter people want something special "only" for their kid. The answer is simple. The number of two wage earners in a family has grown exponentially since 1975. The number of single parent families has also grown exponentially since 1975. So, the amount of time families dedicate to education on a daily basis has declined markedly putting pressure on public schools to do "more". In a k-12 schedule there are less than seven hours of school per 5 day week in a ten month calendar. The metrics simply don't align. 

         Finally, there has been a huge growth in second language learning which can delay academic progress for some kids. Also, the optics of equity are frayed by de facto demographic segregation. And,more poverty and increased severe homelessness makes everything at school much more complicated. So, then the job of teacher entails far more than in decades past, far more complicated, and far more responsibility with a relative wage that has not increased for decades and far less in line with equivalent education as other professions.

         I'm very happy you had a terrific experience in the Peace Corps. But, in a real sense your teaching experience was, most likely, a freer, more satisfying experience than teachers have in many communities today.


    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    Hopefully you'll start your quest to understand public education at a 10,000' view. Systemic problems many times are the result of priorities. The SDUSD school board has made their priorities clear with the wants of Union Labor first and the needs of students a distant second. This propensity to shortchange students was on display when the SDUSD school board gave union construction labor a monopoly on all bond funded school construction work. Instead of getting the best work for the best price our school board chose to eliminate 85% of the local construction workforce (non-union) from participating in building / fixing schools.

    Being everything to everyone is a great concept, by all means address problems in student subgroups (English learners, poor - disadvantaged) but recognize the problem instead of treating the symptom, zero accountability, nonexistent fiduciary responsibility and a systemic system designed to protect a special interest above all else.

    The special interest puppets populating the school board are a great place to start if you're looking for answers...

    Joan Lockwood
    Joan Lockwood

    Maya, so very interesting your teaching stint in Panama and your truthful recounting of your experience.  I found it very well written.  It left me very interested in hearing (reading) more about your Panama adventure.

    Also you will have compassion for both sides both the students and the teachers, a very balanced  vantage point, nice!