People of SU

Head of the Class

Written by Tracy DeCroce

April 30, 2019

Luis Escamilla and Carlito Umali

Image credit: Yosef Chaim Kalinko

Pictured (l-r): Luis Escamilla, '10 MIT, and Carlito Umali, '08, '12 MIT

High placement rate for College of Education alumni who are making their marks in classrooms and beyond.

In Luis Escamilla’s classroom, barely an inch of wall is visible. Artwork by Jake Prendez, posters of Che Guevera and images of the Haitian revolution hang alongside newspaper articles about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., world maps and student writing assignments. It’s what Escamilla refers to as the second classroom—a place where students are learning even when their eyes aren’t on him.

A College of Education (COE) alumnus, Escamilla, ’10 MIT, teaches English Language Learning (ELL) at Foster High School in Tukwila. A Los Angeles native, whose tattoos peek above the collar of his puffy green jacket, Escamilla designed his classroom to speak to students who have fled oppressive and war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Gambia, Somalia, Myanmar and El Salvador.

“A lot of images revolve around liberation, but liberation starts with the self,” Escamilla says. He works the theme into his language lesson about an immigrant family facing difficulties.

To be a successful teacher “you have to have a philosophy and a framework,” Escamilla explains. “You have to have critical love that uses reflection and transformation. Bringing in a critical consciousness helps us through the assumptions we have, especially relating to black and brown youth.”

Escamilla, who is transitioning from teaching to an administrative role this year, is one of many Seattle U Master’s in Teaching (MIT) graduates who have found a job, if not a career, in education. In both 2016 and 2017, the teaching and subbing placement rate for COE MIT graduates was 100 percent. Of the 67 teachers who graduated in 2017, 62 are full- or part-time teachers and five are substitute teachers, often by choice.

While the market for new teachers is robust in Washington and nationally, MIT graduates are a first-round choice of many recruiters, says COE Dean Deanna Sands. As master’s students, candidates begin interning in the classroom from the second week of the program and continue throughout the year, gaining practical experience that sets them apart, Sands says.

“I receive unsolicited feedback that we have very strong candidates coming out of our MIT program,” Sands says. “Districts aren’t waiting for students to finish before offering them contracts since we attract students who are attuned to a curriculum focused on equity, inclusion and social justice—lessons that serve them well in diverse school and community settings.”

Seattle University produces 15 to 20 percent of Seattle Public Schools’ teachers, says Tim Collins, the district’s manager of on-boarding and retention. Between 30 and 50 SU teaching interns work in Seattle schools each year. “The training SU gives aligns well with our school system,” Collins says.

From the first course, the MIT program immerses students in the sociopolitical and sociocultural realities of schools, says Professor Charisse Cowan Pitre, PhD, chair of the K-12 Teaching, Learning and Social Justice Department

“This is a vital component of teacher development, where teachers begin to see themselves as partners working in collaboration with schools, families and communities to close educational opportunity gaps for K-12 students,” Cowan says. “Our focus is on equity and access and preparing teachers for culturally rich educational settings.”

Social studies teacher Carlito Umali, ’08, ’12 MIT, was taking those lessons to a new heights at Risdon Middle School, a Renton school that blends two socioeconomic communities—affluent Newcastle and the less affluent Renton Highlands, where Umali himself lives.

Umali always thought he’d return to the Rainier Valley where he grew up to teach. But a family tragedy nearly ended his career before it began. Fortunately, an offer from TAF Academy in Federal Way jumpstarted his career, which is now in full swing.

“I want kids to discover themselves. I want kids to discover others,” Umali says. “You can leverage their natural curiosity. That’s the fun part of teaching to me.”

He says the MIT program taught him both the technical and the relational sides of teaching. Now, he is mentoring other teachers, an exercise that has him revisiting his MIT lessons and emulating his former SU professors.

“At SU, they were asking us to consider, ‘What is the culture you are entering? How do you navigate that?’” he says. “One of my professional goals is to get teachers together for better student outcomes.”

Even as job prospects rise for new teachers, the profession struggles to hold on to its veterans. Some estimates show half of teachers will leave the profession after five years, according to the National Education Association (NEA). “It’s important to understand why teachers are leaving,” Dean Sands says. “The job just keeps getting more complex. As a society, we keep expecting to fix our social ills like gun violence and mental health in the schools. We keep putting more on teachers’ plates.”

Pay is also an issue. The starting salary for Washington state public teachers was $40,426 in 2016-2017, slightly higher than the national average of $38,617, the NEA reports.

Nisha Daniel, ’10 MIT, embodies the conflicted feelings many teachers have. Beaming at her 27 squirmy first-graders sitting crisscross at Beacon Hill International School, Daniel wants to be sure they understand an assignment. “If you got it, put your hands on your head. If you think you got it, put your hands on your knees. If you’re not sure, put your finger on your nose.” In one masterful stroke, Daniel achieves crowd control while gleaning crucial information and making learning feel like a game.

Daniel became a teacher after working for the nonprofit Girls First and hearing too many stories from girls of color about their teachers not supporting them. She says she chose Seattle U because it best matched her professional teaching goals. At Beacon Hill, a public school offering language immersion, Daniel learned Spanish on the job to converse with many students and parents.

A seven-year veteran, Daniel loves her job but is frustrated with the financial strain. She can relate to striking teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. “When I hear stories of teachers who could barely live, I connect so much,” she says. “It makes me so sad when teachers are put on the back burner. It’s definitely not the pay that keeps you. It’s the kids. There’s so much love.”

The MIT program tends to attract students with an interest in educational equality, Cowan says. Paige Wakamatsu, ’09 MIT, is a perfect example. Once intent on becoming a doctor in Africa, Wakamatsu has a degree in applied math and chemistry. She worked for several nonprofit organizations before tutoring led her to teaching.

Her desire to work with students of color and at-risk kids makes her a perfect fit for South Lake High School, an alternative Seattle public school where she teaches math and ELL. Part teacher, mentor and social worker, she says, what she loves most is the school’s family environment where all the teachers and staff know and care about the kids. To Wakamatsu, it is an extension of SU’s culture.

“Even today, I have the utmost respect for all the faculty. They are beautiful, loving people,” Wakamatsu says. “And the social justice piece, helping marginalized communities. I really felt the love at Seattle U.”

By the Numbers:

Did you know that 100 percent of 2017 MIT grads who are teaching are all doing so in Washington state schools? Here’s a look at placement trends over the past five years.

Full- and Part-Time MIT Teacher Placement*

2017:     93%

2016:     95%

2015:     91%

2014:     88%

2013:     78%

*Numbers do not include substitute teaching.