The teachers fell silent while tension permeated the room. Cassie Parham, a young third-year teacher, had just challenged a veteran staff member on the subject of student engagement during a staff meeting. “I was waiting for his retort," she recalls, "and he just didn’t respond.”
It was 1995, just a few years after Irvine’s University High School used a hefty federal grant to restructure into academy-style “houses” that grouped students with common English, history, and science teachers. The move was designed to create a more nurturing academic environment while promoting collaboration among teachers. But one of the campus’ more iconic educators dug in against the concept, and he had taken his criticism a step further: “Teachers,” he said, “should not have to personalize instruction for students. Teachers should teach,” he insisted, “and it is the job of students to learn.”
Ms. Parham shot back that students should not be treated like anonymous numbers: "They’ll have to deal with that reality soon enough." She asserted that at the high school level, teachers should do their best to connect with their students and develop instructional strategies that support the individual needs of young learners.
More than 15 years later, Ms. Parham still remembers how she felt at that moment:
I couldn’t just quietly sit in my classroom and allow other folks to dismantle a program without discussing why we put it in place to begin with. I sort of found my voice in that moment. I knew I had an obligation to say what I thought and say what I felt.
The philosophy of student engagement has been a constant in the career of Ms. Parham, who now serves as Assistant Superintendent of Education Services in the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD). Even during her earliest days as a student teacher she found herself questioning the efficacy of long lectures because there was no way to gauge how the content was being received.
I never felt like the teacher should be the star. It’s the students who are the focal point.
Her beliefs led her to introduce the concept of the interactive lecture, in which she spoke for just a few minutes before giving her class an opportunity to discuss the subject.
I liked having the opportunity to find out what they were thinking.
A product of the Irvine school system, Ms. Parham started her career as an English teacher, activities director, and pep squad advisor at University High School and ultimately helped open IUSD’s Northwood High School, where she worked for five years as an assistant principal and activities director. She spent the following year at Irvine High as an assistant principal before returning to Northwood as its principal in 2005. In May 2007, she was appointed as the district’s Director of Secondary Education, and four months later she was promoted to Assistant Superintendent.
Like so many administrators, Ms. Parham has had to make the transition to life outside the classroom, away from the inspiring combustion of developing minds. Yet much of her work still centers on promoting student engagement.
In an ideal academic setting students are talking more than their teacher, and assessments are formative as well as summative, enabling the instructor to modify or validate classroom lessons.
As for her long-ago clash with a venerable colleague, Ms. Parham looks back on the moment as a turning point in her career, and she encourages other educators to share their beliefs and display passion in their daily work.
We empower folks in Irvine, because we believe in them. We hire the right people and we want them to have a point of view. This practice invites debate and sometimes controversy, but as long as we continue to put students’ needs first, we welcome the opportunity, as educators, to learn from the talented people in this organization.
Ms. Parham received her M.A. in English, her Teacher Credential, and her Administrative Credential from UC Irvine. She completed her student teaching requirement under the guidance of Judi Conroy, Ed.D., then an English teacher at University High School, now the Director of Student Affairs and Teacher Education at UC Irvine.