Kevin Beiser: Teaching San Diego’s kids to succeedFeature Story, Top Highlights Friday, August 10th, 2012
BY TOM ANDREW
Kevin Beiser is a very interesting man. Who he is and what he does only furthers that interest.
In an election year that has already proven to be wrought with controversy, and insincerity, Beiser, a man who comes from very humble beginnings, seeks to be re-elected in his position on the San Diego Unified School Board.
Beiser openly admits that this position was not something he sought out, or thought he’d ever do; yet here we are. “I never thought I would ever run for elected office – ever,” Beiser said. “I was at a Padres game with a couple friends, one of whom is a retired teacher, and they asked me if I would run for the school board.”
While he may have thought he’d never run for an elected office, Beiser has always been involved in politics working to fight for a positive change. “There was a combination of things that culminated in my decision to run for the school board in an effort to make a difference in San Diego Schools,” he said. “As a teacher, I was involved in a variety of ways to help improve student learning and better myself. My experience also provides me a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges in today’s classroom. Being a voice for teachers and educators on the school board adds an essential perspective to the discourse in board meetings and ultimately helps kids.”
Beiser, who is openly gay, is also a math teacher at Granger Junior high school in Chula Vista. His path to becoming a teacher came from his desire to help others; in fact, he often tutored algebra and math to fellow students in high school when he was growing up.
Being involved with both of these positions has been a challenge for Beiser given his openness about his homosexuality. He confided that it has both hurt and helped him in with his work.
“The key for me is that it is just another aspect of who I am,” Beiser said. “Just like any other characteristic that people have. I am a math teacher that cares about helping students learn and succeed – that is what defines me as a person. I never really consider myself a “trailblazer” being the first gay person elected to the school board because I admire those that I consider to be the real trailblazers: Christine Kehoe, Toni Atkins and Todd Gloria.”
He also has a very strong stance on bullying, a trend that has been in the news frequently in the last few years, and what it was like to deal with that when he was growing up.
“I know a lot of people that were bullied as kids and some of them attempted suicide,” Beiser recalls. “I remember in high school walking home one day and a bunch of kids started shooting bottle rockets at me and yelling horrible things at me. I ran as fast as I could – then they stopped chasing me. I remember being pushed in the hallways and the verbal taunting. But it got better. I met Dan Savage a few times in the ‘90s and thought he was a great advocate for LGBT issues and I greatly respect his It Gets Better campaign. We have to continue to let kids, who suffer from bullying and intolerance, know that they are not alone and that they are loved. Life has its ups and downs, but as Ellen DeGeneres said in the movie Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
Beiser is also honest about how he feels bullying exists on some levels in his school and every school and how he wants to minimize those opportunities for kids to be mean.
“We have to minimize those opportunities for kids to be mean and when it does occur we use that teachable moment to help people learn from their mistakes,” Beiser said.
Beiser mentioned that last week an English teacher asked her 7th graders to write about what they liked and didn’t like about being in junior high and recalled one student mentioning how he’d been bullied for seven years but that bully was now gone from his life.
“Here at Granger,” Beiser said. “The staff seriously doesn’t allow bullying. So far, I haven’t seen any one getting bullied ever. They also put in a bullying hotline to help. The English teacher [that] forwarded this to the staff wrote, ‘I think this is a bit heartbreaking but also validating to the work you do.’ Wow. I almost cried. This is a tribute to the entire staff at my school. The “HATE FREE ZONE” signs all over campus, the anti-bullying hotline and staff expectations have made a difference at my school. There are schools just like this all over San Diego that are doing the right thing for kids and creating safe learning environments. We must continue to create a culture of tolerance and understanding in schools so that kids can concentrate on learning and being kids in a positive learning environment where they can thrive.”
The one thing that stands out about Beiser, and the work he is doing, is where he came from and how he worked his way out of a life of poverty to achieve the important role that he plays today both at Granger and the Unified School Board.
“I grew up in a large family in poverty,” Beiser admits. “Sometimes it was really challenging with no electricity, no water and sometimes we had to go search for food in food banks and anywhere else we could. For a few years we lived in a tent and for a while I lived in a homeless shelter with my mom and two younger siblings. They would wake us up every morning with country music at the shelter. In the fourth grade I remember waking up to my mom’s crying. I went out to the living room in our apartment and saw my mom and dad looking at coins and bills stacked up all over the table. I asked what was wrong. My mom replied, ‘We do not have enough money for rent.’ We moved a lot when I was growing up, but nothing was worse than living in a tent during my middle and high school years. I was ashamed and never wanted to live like that again. I wanted to break out of poverty. I knew that I wanted to go to college to achieve that dream. Most of my students live in poverty and many will be the first in their family to graduate from high school. The kids are awesome and all want to learn and do a good job so that they too can realize the American dream and go to college. In my algebra class we learn the content, but there are also other things that are vital to their success as students and people – like learning to persevere and overcome obstacles. Everyone has challenges in life, but the key is to achieve despite them. My mom always says, ‘What does not kill us only makes us stronger.’ I could not agree more. We must teach our kids to be strong and never give up.”
It is apparent that those last words have become a way of life for Beiser, not only as a child but also, even now, as an adult, politician and teacher.
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