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Sam Vo: A Case Study In What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher

Sam Vo: A Case Study In What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher

So You Want To Be A Good Teacher

Are you an aspiring teacher?  Maybe you’re a new educator?  Perhaps you’re a veteran maestro?  Regardless of which one you are, you may be wondering if you’ve got what it takes to have a long successful career in education.  If this question is burning in your mind, then let us take a look at the case of a once young handsome Asian boy named Sam Vo.  I think a study of his teaching career will shed some light on the answer as to whether you can make it in this field.  Let’s begin.



My dad was a medical doctor.  Sadly, I never got to know him because he passed away due to cancer when I was just two years old.  He became kind of a legend for me as I grew up hearing stories about his kindness and intelligence. As one of my uncles on my mom’s side put it: “He wasn’t a saint, but he was a nice guy with a good heart.”  I wanted to be just like my father. I wanted to be every bit as kind and intelligent as the legends about him said. What better way to embody all of my dad’s qualities than to become a… doctor. Yeah, you were probably expecting “teacher”, but my dad had been an M.D. and I wanted to be like him, so… doctor.


Throughout most of elementary and middle school, I performed very well academically, and was on course for medical school.  However, the rigorous science and math courses in high school gave me pause. I got through the classes with obscene amounts of grit and sleepless nights.  As hard as those science and math classes were in high school, the ones in college were on a whole other level for me. I’d spend up to 10 hours a week in tutoring with course TAs just to hang on to C’s in physics, calculus, biochemistry, etc.  I just didn’t have my father’s intellect. He was top of his class in medical school. I wasn’t even sure if I could make it through college. Getting into med school became highly unlikely by my senior year at university. Fortunately, there was an alternative career choice I had been unwittingly working towards for almost the entire time I was in college.  Hint: it has something to do with my current profession.

In my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara, I got a job at a Kumon center because I was a poor college boy who had finally spent all of the $1000 in cash I had saved throughout high school and brought with me to university in a coffee can.  Kumon is a private service that provides math and language arts remediation, practice, and/or enrichment for students of all ages. Thankfully, the clients were almost exclusively all elementary or middle school aged, so I could handle tutoring those levels of content.  I took the job because I needed the money, but I had no idea how much I would come to love it. I was getting paid to hang out with kids for a couple of hours everyday. Of course, I helped the kids with their math and language arts work, but more importantly, I got to teach them lessons about life.  

  • I helped out a mom get her bratty 6-year-old daughter under control and taught them both how to talk to each other while teaching the girl math over the course of a year.  After a few months of giving the mom examples of how NOT to treat her daughter like a princess all the time, and telling the daughter stories of how good she had it with her mom because my mom used to beat me with a broken yardstick, the 6-year-old stopped having temper tantrums.  I like to think that some of that was my doing.
  • There was a shy 8th grade math genius who was so focused about getting into Harvard eventually that he excluded most fun in his life.  At 13-years-old, he was doing math that I couldn’t even help him with. Since, I was useless to him as a tutor (he just needed practice anyway), I focused my time with him on just joking with the kid and reminding him to stop and smell the roses on occasion.  A few years later, I ran into him as I was walking by a small group of high school kids. He stopped me to say hello. I didn’t recognize him at first because I had always seen him before by himself, clean shaven, and with short brown hair. On that fateful day, however, he sported a slight beard and long hair tied in braids.  After talking briefly for a minute about how he was still on track for Harvard, I left and he went back to his group of friends. I like to think that I played a part in helping him see there was more to life than his studies.
  • I remember tutoring a high school girl who would complain about how the boys she had dated turned out to be jerks.  She was always an upbeat kid, but I recall how quiet she got when I told her she needed to stop going out with boys just because they were cute or hot.  I continued by telling her that she shouldn’t lower her standards and allow boys to mistreat her. She was/is worth more than that. Ordinarily, she was quite talkative, but she was silent as I told her all this.  She was really listening. I like to think that she is all grown up now and chose to marry someone who treats her like a queen, partially because of the advice I gave her.

Fast forward to my senior year of college.  I had recently taken the MCAT, and although I did pretty decent on the exam, I knew it wouldn’t be enough when looked at alongside my university grades.  Luckily, a game changer occurred. I was sitting in some kind of intro to education class I had enrolled in to fulfill a general education requirement, and the professor said one day, “Teaching is a calling.”  The statement stuck with me. I knew I didn’t have my father’s intellect, so medicine was not going to be how I was meant to help others. By the end of my senior year, it dawned on me that I heard the calling.  I would help others by becoming a… you know.


Right After College

After earning my bachelors degree, I worked for a couple of years to gain more teaching related experience before applying to a credential program.  My so-so university grades and science course work didn’t exactly scream teacher material, so I figured I needed something on my resume, in addition to Kumon, that did.  

To that end, I worked as an aide for a pair of elementary teachers at Franklin Elementary School in Santa Barbara. I learned a lot about teaching with compassion from Mrs. Hernandez.  To this day, I’ve known precious few teachers who could peer into the mind and soul of a student better than she could. Also, she was firm but soooooooo cool. Her students adored her.

Also, I got a gig as the Resource Center Coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club of Carpinteria, CA.  According to the job posting, the Resource Center was the room within the club where all the educational activities took place.  What the job posting failed to mention was that the position came with no training. It was trial by fire! I was SOLELY responsible for the computers, the tiny library, homework help, the local high school and college volunteer tutors, field trips, decorations, enrichment activities, etc.  It wasn’t until I gave notice 10 months later that my boss told me I had lasted longer as the Resource Center Coordinator than anyone previous. He even sent me a wonderful recommendation letter weeks later, which I never even asked for, but I definitely earned it.  As tough as the job was, I learned a triceratops-sized-shit-load about how to manage kids and a classroom.



I had to leave the Boys and Girls Club in June of 2003 because my Teacher Ed Program at UC Santa Barbara started that month.  My experiences at the club and Franklin Elementary were enough for the admissions people at the Gevirtz School of Education to overlook my mediocre college grades.  Things went well enough 1st semester, but quickly turned sour soon after.

My TEP required student-teachers to take over 2 class periods from their master teachers at whatever site they were placed at during the 2nd semester.  I had the sage idea to ask for placement at the toughest, lowest performing middle school in the area. I reasoned that if I could survive there, I’d come out as a badass motherhugger.  I was kind of right. Those middle schoolers kicked my ass badly. Some kids would leave class whenever they felt like it, some would steal/hide/throw away materials so lessons couldn’t be taught, there were fights every other day, at least one child tried to commit suicide in the girls restroom.  On top of all this, my master teacher had admitted to me he was burnt out so he wasn’t much help, the principal was replaced mid-year so some basic school protocols were unknown to much of the staff (I had to go directly to the principal just to get a door unlocked), and the school had been designated as Program Improvement the year before.  I was taking a figurative beating every day and thought about quitting at least once a week, but my experiences from my childhood and the Boys and Girls Club gave me the will to see the program all the way to the end.

The most important thing I got out of student teaching was finding and exuding my sense of authority.  The following story should illustrate what I mean nicely. As a student-teacher, I was in the middle of teaching a chemistry lesson when one of my 8th graders, Adriana, got up from her seat at the back of the class and began approaching the front.  I stopped and asked her what she needed. She said she wanted a tissue. I asked her to wait a moment because I was almost done. A big smile appeared on her face and she took a few more steps forward. I repeated my request and she paused, then continued forward some more. Her smile widened and she, along with the rest of the students, burst out in laughter as Adriana plucked a tissue from its place at the front of class.  Adriana didn’t recognize my authority so she felt she could do whatever she wanted. Things like this happened A LOT for months. However, towards the end of the school year, things turned around. One day, in May of 2004, Adriana was back at it again. She got up and approached the front of the class for a tissue. I asked her to wait until I finished my instructions. She continued her approach. I then looked her right in the eyes and said in a stern voice, “Don’t test me, child.”  She turned around and took her seat. That was the moment I realized I had found my sense of authority. I wish I could tell new or prospective teachers exactly how to find it for themselves as well, but I can’t. It just suddenly clicked for me. One thing I can say that helped was having my class rules and procedures set in place and enforced. I made the mistake of neglecting these things when I first took over for my master teacher. Obviously, BIG MISTAKE. But once my rules and procedures were clearly laid out and I held my students to them, things got easier… a smidge.


Newbie Teacher

Holding on by my fingertips, I gutted out student-teaching and graduated from the UCSB TEP in June of 2004.  Just to be clear, I was a terrible student-teacher. I made all kinds of mistakes. The one thing I did right was learning from those mistakes.  Surviving at the toughest middle school in the district really did make me a badass, but only because I reflected on the experience and made corrections.  As a result, my first year as a real credentialed teacher (2004-2005) was a breeze compared to the hell of student-teaching. That’s not to say I was an amazing educator, but by June 2005, I was pretty well liked by students and staff, I loved my job, and I wasn’t worn out by the end of the year as some others get.  

My second year of teaching didn’t go so well though, and I know exactly why: I got really lazy with classroom management.  I let the kids get away with stuff too much and didn’t make enough phone calls. Instead, I spent the year yelling at the kids, which every good teacher knows is not a good long-term strategy for inspiring students.  Just as I did as a student-teacher, I resolved to improve, which is why my third year went considerably better. For that year, I went back to applying appropriate consequences. Most importantly, I focused on building good relationships with my students (For more details about how to do that, please refer to Developing Good Relationships With Students and all subsequent posts in the series).  It paid off big time. The kids were super well behaved for me and I was able to get through to a lot of difficult students.  I was so successful that I thought I could do no wrong. Then my fourth year came along and, I’m ashamed to say, I got complacent AGAIN with my classroom management.  At least I didn’t yell at them this time, but I did take a bit of a beating that year. During my fifth and sixth years, I really doubled down on classroom management, which turned my ship back in the right direction.

Teaching With and Without Heart

Doubling down on classroom management worked too well.  I focused more on rules, consequences, and phone calls more than relationships for my seventh through ninth years of teaching.  I was so preoccupied with dealing with misbehavior that the job got boring and tedious. By the end of my ninth year, I was ready to call it quits.

I was going through the motions during my tenth year when several students were transferred to me from another science teacher.  Their behavior was dreadful and they didn’t want to do any work. They later told me that their previous science teacher had “ruined” science for them.  She had been so mean and disrespectful to them that they had lost the will to try. I felt so bad for them that I became determined to help them out. I laid off a bit on the consequences and gave them lots of positive pep talks.  By June 2014, all three boys passed science (one of them even got a B). The whole experience with those boys reminded me of something I had forgotten in my zeal to manage student behavior: kids misbehave because they have needs that are not being met.  By building strong relationships with those boys and showing them every day that I was on their side, I fulfilled at least some of their needs. They were never model students, but their poor behavior went down and their effort went up. It also occurred to me that my tenth year had been a pretty good one and that I no longer disliked the job.  I have loved my work every year since (except for my 12th year, but there were extenuating circumstances that were beyond my control) because I’ve come to realize that managing a classroom and developing good relationships with students go hand-in-hand. Having good relationships will take care of most student behavior problems. For the 2 or 3 percent of kids who misbehave regardless of the kind of relationship you have with them, that’s when the classroom management comes into play.  



After well over a decade as an educator, I’ve gotten pretty good at building positive relationships and managing students.  It’s been a very long time since I let myself get complacent with either skill. I’ve spent the last several years honing my pedagogical talents.  I know how to treat my students with respect and how to inspire/cajole them to behave, so now I’m working on how to to get them to learn and remember my content.  The days of pouring knowledge into the students’ empty vessel minds are over. That’s the great thing about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They focus less on rote memorization and more on the self-acquisition and application of knowledge.  For example, I used to give PowerPoint notes to my students which gave them ALL the information they needed to know in the 8th grade about physics and gravity. After presenting the notes, I would give my kids various worksheets and activities to reinforce the knowledge they “learned” from the PowerPoint.  Typical, old school style of teaching. I just recently finished teaching my students physics, and the way I did it was completely different than the old school method. First of all, I didn’t give them any notes. I gave my students lots of lab activities in which the kids collaborated with each other to discover Newton’s laws and how gravity works for themselves.  We will soon be working on a project that has students apply their knowledge of physics and gravity to figure out the best way to prevent a fictional asteroid from striking the Earth. I’m not pouring knowledge into their empty minds. The kids are filling up their minds themselves and I’m there to guide them. It sounds easy, but it’s really hard planning these kinds of activities, getting the kids to talk to each other about a given topic, and resisting the urge to just give the students the information.  It’s worth it though because the kids learn and remember so much better through this inquiry process. It doesn’t even matter if science isn’t your subject. Teaching the kids content through inquiry can be done for any subject. If you’re not sure how to adapt your class to inquiry, comment below and we’ll figure it out together.

Still Want To Be A Good Teacher?

So, if you’re an aspiring/newbie teacher or veteran educator uncertain of whether or not you’ve got what it takes to last in this career, I hope I’ve given you the tools to make it possible.  I’ve been that newbie who got his ass kicked early and often. I’ve also been the burnt out veteran. However, I’ve managed to learn from my mistakes when I was a beginner, and found a way to love my job again when I was burnt out by reflecting on my practice.  My reflections taught me a few important lessons:

  • If you want to get into this profession, prepare yourself for it by working with kids and teachers as a tutor, TA, Boys and Girls Club staff, etc.
  • You’re going to make a lot of mistakes in your first few years as a teacher.  Come to think of it, you’re going to be making mistakes throughout your entire career.  Don’t fret though. It’s okay as long as you learn from them and change your practice for the better.
  • Good teaching can be broken down into 3 pieces.  The first and biggest piece is developing strong, positive relationships with your students.  The second smaller piece is implementing classroom management early on by setting up proper rules and procedures and upholding them.  The last piece is picking up as many pedagogical tools as you can so that your students learn as efficiently as possible. The first 2 pieces can be mastered in just a few years.  The last piece is not something that can ever be mastered. You can master pedagogical techniques, but there will always be new methods of pedagogy. They will often scare you because you’ll have to step out of your comfort zone in order to learn an unknown skill.  I was scared shitless to learn and switch over to teaching through inquiry. What got me through it was seeing how well it works for my students. So, yes, there will be fear, but there will also be excitement in knowing you’ll be a better teacher by adding another tool to your kit.

Anyhoo, that’s how I became a teacher and how I became a good teacher.  Please use what took me over a decade to learn, especially if you are or aspire to be a science teacher because it’s really hard to find good ones.  If you’ve got a method I haven’t mentioned for how to make it in this business, please comment away.

2 thoughts on “Sam Vo: A Case Study In What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher

  1. Awesome post! I love hearing how people fell into teaching. I have always wanted to be a teacher. In 6th grade I fell in love with science. I really am working my dream job.

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