08/28/2011 08:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

My Favorite Teachers, Part 1

This post is part one of a four-part series.

I have taught entrepreneurship and business to low-income students for the past 30 years, and have often thought about the teachers who have had an impact on my teaching philosophy and career. I would like to present four great educators who touched me personally.

1. Jaime Escalante

Born in Bolivia, Jaime Escalante came to this country in 1970 to teach math. As his accreditation in Bolivia was not recognized here, he had to recertify his educational credentials. In the meantime, he worked nights as a dish washer. His first teaching position came in 1974 at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, which is located in an extremely low-income area. By 1978, he was teaching his students advanced calculus. Four years later, 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement exam in calculus, an astonishing number considering their backgrounds. However, many had the same mistakes on the same problems, which made the authorities suspicious. Each of his students was made to retake the test and each one passed it -- again. Seventy-three of his students had passed the Advanced Placement exam by 1987. Jaime became an instant legend through Stand and Deliver, a wonderful movie in which he was played by Edward James Olmos. I had begun to read about Jaime in the mid-80's and he instantly became an inspiration -- his effect on my career has been incalculable.

I was a 32-year-old teacher in New York in 1986, when I called Garfield High and left a message for Mr. Escalante. That night, I got a call at home, and through a thick Spanish accent I heard:

"Is this Mr. Mariotti?"

"This is me."

"It's Jaime Escalante. You wanted to talk to me?"

I almost fell over. The legend was returning my phone call. "I'm a special ed teacher in the South Bronx," I told him. "I really admire you. I'm going to in L.A. to accept an award and wanted to visit your classroom."

He said, "Of course."

Two weeks later, I was waiting in the lobby of Garfield High when Jaime walked up and gave me a hug. "Let's go, Steve." He showed me his classroom, a large, auditorium-like space, with each row of seats up a step, so everyone would have an unobstructed view of the front of the room. On the wall I noticed blown-up photos of the Los Angeles Lakers.

In his office Jaime showed me the large filing cabinets he used to stay organized. He had a lesson plan and handouts for each class in a folder. On any given day, he pulled out the appropriate folder and was good to go. We went back to the classroom. I sat in the back row, so I was looking down over the entire room. Jaime walked up a couple of steps, and seemed to be talking to me as well as to the students.

It was a brilliant presentation. He used three overhead transparencies: one to present the objective, one to show a sample problem, and one to demonstrate a more difficult example, which he would make explanatory notes on with a Vis-A-Vis pen. (To this day, these pens are the only writing instruments I use -- with the clips bent back, as Jaime did.)

The students would then break into groups to solve the problem, after which two of the groups would be called to present. In the last two minutes of the class, Jaime would give a lightning quiz that the students would self-grade in 30 seconds. He followed this same routine every day that I was there.

Many of my own classroom techniques were eventually based on watching this great educator. I learned the importance of emphasizing punctuality (later I would call it the "Lombardi rule" -- after football coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers -- but I really learned it from Jaime). I saw the importance of providing role models for the students, which is why Jaime had pictures of Einstein and Galileo and Newton on the walls, along with Lakers stars. He taught me the importance of group work in the classroom, and always being prepared. I also learned the value of drills combined with constant self-evaluation. Perhaps most importantly I learned the significance of visuals in teaching; he had basic mathematical formulas posted all over the room. In just 48 minutes, Jaime utilized teaching strategies that could reach any learner in the class.

He explained that he followed the same format every day so the kids would get to know the routine. He stood by the door and shook the hand of each student that came in. He closed the door the moment the bell rang, and no student was allowed to enter late. He had a "do now" problem already written on the board; the class was silent as each student thought about the problem. When the bell rang and after he closed the door, he would take out of his desk a large stuffed animal and randomly toss it. The first kid it touched had to go up to the board to solve the problem in writing. He tossed the toy four more times. Five students would then be at the board simultaneously working on the same problem, while the rest of the class watched.
You could hear a pin drop while they were working. Then, one by one, each student would present his or her answer and show how it was arrived at. Once the five had presented their solutions, Jaime would give the class new material.

Jaime had me over to his house for dinner twice, and we ate lunch together almost every day. In one of the highlights of my teaching life, he let me give a 20-minute lesson on math and business. Jaime was the greatest educator I ever knew personally. I was proud to call him a friend and mentor. He died on March 30, 2010. The last time I spoke to him was in the late 90's, when he was teaching in Sacramento. The last thing he said to me was: "Get the routine and the audio visuals right and assume the students can do anything." I have never forgotten that.

This is part one of a four-part series. Read part two here.