Gerardo Perla teaches Advanced Placement physics, calculus and Geometry at Los Angeles High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is also the advisor for the MESA program.
Mr. Perla was born in El Salvador and lived in a small rural area of the country. He lived with his mother, grandmother and two younger sisters and attended a small school in his remote village. He often experienced great fear when caught in the crossfire of the civil war fighting going on in and around his village. As a young child, he was forced to dodge bullets and shrapnel from exploding grenades. His village was evacuated several times when it was overrun with combat fighting.
At age 14, El Salvadorian boys must enlist in the army. Rather than go into the army, Mr. Perla was sent to be with his father in the United States and enrolled at Banning High School in Los Angeles. Unable to speak the language, he was placed in ESL classes until he became fluent in English. When he was able to master English, teachers quickly determined he was an intelligent young man and he was promoted into honors classes.
In the beginning, Gerardo showed little interest in college, nor did he have anyone in his life to talk with about higher education or the requirements to get there. His father had no formal education and there seemed to be no one interested enough to recognize his abilities at his high school. Eventually, he was inspired by one of his math teachers, who recognized his capabilities and introduced him to the possibilities of a college education. Gerardo determined what he needed to know and his math teacher saw that he enrolled in the appropriate classes to meet the UC requirements.
Gerardo was accepted to UCLA and majored in physics. Upon graduation from UCLA, he took a job as a waiter and as a substitute teacher while he determined what his future would be. The student teaching assignment led him to his first teaching position at his alma mater, Banning High School, in Los Angeles. He later transferred to Los Angeles High School, where he has remained for the past 8 years.
“I chose LA High School because the students there were like me when I came to the United States. Many do not speak English, are a little lost, stuck in generational poverty and no one believes they are capable of being academically successful. I wanted to give back what I had been given. At LA High, I am able to serve as a role model for my students. I can share my success and happiness with them and am proof that education can get them out of poverty. When they hear my story, they have no excuse for not working hard to achieve their goals.
“For some reason, even in the midst of the El Salvadorian civil war, I still enjoyed learning and thinking. When I came to the United States, not knowing the language, and not having educational support at home, was difficult, to say the least. However, I enjoyed the challenge and learned the language as quickly as I could. While I never planned to become a teacher – I really had no purpose when I went to college – I have learned that teaching is truly my calling. I truly look forward to coming to work every day of my life. I see my role as needing to focus on my students and their needs. I strive to help them understand the material, enjoy the experience and learn math concepts that will improve their lives. To accomplish this, I must first show my respect for them and their situation. More importantly, I must be able to listen to and hear them. Because of my background, I understand them and, eventually, they learn to trust me. I realize most of my physics and calculus students are not going to be scientists or engineers, so I have to plan learning activities that are interesting and relevant to their daily lives. I teach them about competition, particularly in my MESA program. I also teach them how to win as well as loose. I want them to experience what it is like to perform at higher levels.
“I have created a reputation as having very high expectations. Students who take my classes know they will be expected to perform what I ask of them; be expected to complete all the work I assign to them; and, be expected to come after school and on Saturdays for tutoring and extra help to master the material. However, they also know that I will be with them every step of the way to help them meet my expectations. They know I will stay for 4 or 5 hours after school if they need the help or need to finish an exam or just need to be there until their parents are home. I also push the need for them to begin considering college as early as possible. I do not wish for them to have to experience the same difficulties I faced when I was in high school. I try to show them there are a number of ways to finance their education and remove themselves from the poverty they see all around them. I continually make an effort to bring back former students who have gone to major colleges and universities to speak with my students. The more role models they can see and associate with, the more they see possibilities for themselves. Of course, I love to see all my students succeed, whether or not they go on to college.
“I want them to learn skills they will use all of their lives, particularly in college. If they do go on to college, I want them to walk into their classes knowing what to expect and with the necessary foundation and preparation upon which they can build future learning. Quite honestly, I have students coming back all the time, telling me that college physics or calculus was easier than my class. I do not take credit for that, but rather praise them for putting in all the hard work to learn the material by challenging themselves and gaining the confidence in their abilities. So many of them go on to college believing they are ‘less’ than other students who come from more affluent areas and school. My job is to give them the ability to compete with anyone on any level.”