Of the 25,000 teachers employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, 22 were honored in June as Teacher of the Year for exceptional commitment to their students, schools and communities.
One of them is Ben Feinberg, who teaches math at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park, where he also coaches the award-winning Science Team and created Schooldatanerd.com, a blog where students use data to clarify pressing issues, such as the homelessness rate of students in Northeast L.A.
Teacher of the Year is extraordinary recognition for any teacher, but especially so for Mr. Feinberg, who didn’t start out to be a teacher, let alone a math teacher. Growing up, Mr. Feinberg, a Los Angeles native and the son of labor lawyers, assumed he would be a labor organizer like his parents. “It’s sort of a family doctrine that you serve your community,” he said recently in an interview with the Boulevard Sentinel.
But he learned by doing that labor organizing – with its daily difficulties and rare rewards, its big losses and big wins — was not for him. In 2007, while he was a student at UC Berkeley majoring in Political Science, he fought alongside the campus’s unionized custodial workers to lift their poverty-level wages. It took more than two years, with bruising setbacks along the way, before the workers won a better contract. By then, Mr. Feinberg had graduated and gravitated toward teaching. “I wanted to find something with more balance,” he said. “Little wins and little losses.”
He received his teacher training by joining Teach for America, a national corps of young educators who commit to teaching in low-income schools. His first job, in 2008, was teaching English and Social Studies at Johnny L. Cochran Middle School in Mid City, where he also first experienced the connection to students and learning that has become his hallmark: He had assigned the novel Esperanza Rising about a wealthy girl from Mexico who is forced to work in the fields in California. The story explores the themes of class, opportunity, service and fulfillment. “I remember when we finished the book in class, and we all just sat there and cried,” he said.
Unfortunately, that powerful start to his teaching career was cut short by the Great Recession. In 2009, after only a year at Johnny Cochran, he was laid off. For the next five years, he taught 5th grade at a charter school in South Los Angeles. He learned to manage a classroom, but lost his work-life balance. He was commuting daily from Glendale, which left little time to spend with his wife, Emily, whom he had met during the Teach for America training and married in 2012. (The couple has a three-year old daughter and a newborn son.)
The opportunity he had been hoping for came in 2014, when the math teacher position opened up at Luther Burbank. To make the leap to teaching middle-school math, he drew on his college background in statistics and data analysis and on the math training he had received when he earned his teaching credential. Luther Burbank also sent him for curriculum training. In addition, he took professional development courses in secondary math at UCLA Extension.
In the process, he discovered a passion for math and for teaching math.
“It’s really about teaching problem solving skills,” he said. “The whole approach is about discovery. Discovering the principles that actually relate to real-world problems.”
His students have embraced this approach. This year, a four-member team of 8th graders coached by Mr. Feinberg and Joel Rizo, a computer-coding teacher at Luther Burbank, took second place in the state of California in the National Engineering Design Challenge, a competition that is part of a special curriculum known as MESA, for Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement. The Luther Burbank team designed and built a wearable device to help people who are visually impaired detect objects in their path.
Early in his career, Mr. Feinberg pivoted away from the family tradition of working in organized labor. But to the good fortune of Luther Burbank Middle School, he has found his own way to adhere to the family doctrine of serving his community.