Los Angeles Unified School District has weathered its fair share of hardship. The second biggest school district in the nation is no stranger to controversy, and 80 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. Yet too often, we hear only the bad news. Take high school social studies teacher Daniel Jocz, for example. In his 11 years teaching, Jocz has gone above and beyond in his efforts to better educate his students and inspire them both inside and outside of the classroom. In January this commitment earned him some much-deserved recognition when he was chosen as one of four finalists for 2016’s National Teacher of the Year. (The winner will be announced in April.)
“I was definitely shocked,” says Jocz. “There are so many amazing teachers at Downtown Magnets High School, in LAUSD, and across the country. I also felt very honored to be have an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the great work that my students do in my classes.”
At DMHS, where he has taught for the past 11 years, Jocz serves as department chair and Associated Student Body advisor, and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Team, which establishes goals to support high-equality education for students. “My local site has been super supportive,” Jocz said. “It’s really a collective recognition because I can’t do what I do without an administration that allows me the professional freedom to try new things, and colleagues that have similar teaching philosophies.”
Jocz is known for his innovative teaching style and creative curriculum. His YouTube channel, Jocz Productions, boasts nearly 14,000 subscribers and offers a crash course in U.S. history aided by pop culture references to help students remember the material (details about the Social Security Act are set to the catchy tune of Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” and the National Recovery Act is scored by Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”)
Jocz has posted more than 200 videos in the past three years. “So many teachers are doing these things but the success I’ve had has definitely been noticed, so that’s cool,” says Jocz, himself a product of the L.A. public school system. Jocz attended North Hollywood High, and went on to the University of California-Los Angeles where he was the first in his family to attend college. He graduated from UCLA in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in history and earned his master’s degree in education from the university in 2005.
Jocz’s influence extends beyond the classroom. Under his leadership, a group of eight students took home first place in the 2013 Aspen Challenge, where they presented a campaign to promote ocean conservation among inner-city residents. He also plans the school’s annual International Week, which invites both students and parents to celebrate the rich cultural diversity of the DMHS community.
“Any time you’re able to do things on an extra-curricular level, whether it be coaching a sports team or doing some of these service learning projects, it allows you to get to know the students, and their families, and the challenges they’re going through,” he said. “[That’s] always a plus.”
Many of Jocz’s students are first- or second-generation immigrants. As a result, they assume added responsibilities at home, like translating bills and legal documents for their parents or working to help support their families. “It’s amazing to see the tenacity and grit displayed by our students,” Jocz said.
In his National Teacher of the Year application Jocz detailed his frustration with policy decisions made without teachers’ input, salaries that only advance with administrator status, and the widespread devaluation of the teaching profession. If chosen as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jocz will spend a year traveling the country and plans to use the platform to advocate for giving teachers a larger role in shaping policy and curriculum while still maintaining a presence in the classroom.
One of the most serious problems facing education today, Jocz said, is the massive decline in enrollment in teacher credential programs and poor retention rates across the nation. This is linked to the lack of respect many teachers perceive, as well as the fact that teaching in public school districts is not a particularly lucrative career path.
“The classroom is what keeps me going,” say Jocz. “If I can just be in front of students and stay pumped up and see all the remarkable growth, that’s the easy part. But I’m also hoping the system will change and will start to give teachers that are proven to be effective more opportunities.”