Damian Joseph, a third-grade teacher at West Seattle Elementary School, grew up in a single-parent household that relied on public assistance. Now, he uses that experience to help his students strive for success.

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Editor’s note: This is the third installment of our ongoing “Why I Teach” series. You can read the first two interviews here and here.

Damian Joseph, who will begin his 20th year in teaching this September, has long felt called to be an educator. But it took him awhile to figure out why.

Joseph grew up poor in a single-parent household that relied on public assistance. His father was a teacher for 42 years, but Joseph didn’t grow up with him, and it took him awhile to make that connection.

After working 14 years at the private Zion Preparatory Academy, Joseph was hired by Seattle Public Schools to teach third grade at the then-beleaguered West Seattle Elementary as part of a $1.2 million federal school improvement grant in 2010. Since then, students have made significant improvements in test scores for reading and math.

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Through it all, Joseph says, the reasons why he teaches have remained the same: It’s a calling, and something he feels natural doing.

Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

How did you first get into teaching?

There was a professor at Seattle University. I guess he saw something in me. He said, “You know what, I think you would be a good teacher.” I thought about that, and I was going to go other directions, but I said, OK, let me try this out.

I found that it was just a natural flow for me. It wasn’t something that was hard to do. Not having spent a lot of time with my father, I really didn’t think about, “Oh, my father’s a teacher,” but later on, I realized “oh, this is where this came from!”

Any field that you’re in that’s hard to do, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be doing it. You want to be in something that’s natural for you — something that even if you didn’t get paid, you would still want to do that.

So, the professor was right. That was my niche and my passion: Helping younger people become better, both academically and socially.

How do you motivate students who are struggling?

One example: I have an AR (Accelerated Reader) program that I operate in my class. We’re doing a reader workshop. The goal is to get students to read an extended amount of time. I always try to keep my expectations high, so my goal was to do 50 minutes to about an hour.

I found out students were getting bored. They said, “Oh, Mr. Joseph do we have to do this? I don’t want to do this. This is too hard. It’s boring.” All those kinds of things.

So I decided to use the AR system to motivate students. So how it works is you read a book, you give a brief little summary as a checking point. And each book that they read they would get a passing mark. I put their names on a chart, and so they wanted to see that. Then you had kids competing with one another, and even the kids that aren’t at as high a level as the others, they wanted to be up there, too.

Then also, I would follow that up with an actual reward. Sometimes it’s chips, sometimes it could be candy, different things like that. You know, we as adults, we get paid for our jobs, we want rewards. Children are the same.

So you bribe them?

In a way, yes. (Laughs)

It just took off. You can walk into class at some points, and you can hear a pin drop. They are reading for extended amounts of time.

Damian Joseph works on a Weekly Scholars Chart in his third-grade class at West Seattle Elementary. He gives students “smiley faces” when they demonstrate excellent behavior and strong academic effort. (Erika J. Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2011)
Damian Joseph works on a Weekly Scholars Chart in his third-grade class at West Seattle Elementary. He gives students “smiley faces” when they demonstrate excellent behavior and strong academic effort. (Erika J. Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2011)

What’s the hardest part about teaching?

The administrative aspect of it. You have permission slips. You have all these other different dates you’re trying to meet. But that just goes with the job. So I don’t mind that, because I want to teach.

You work with student teachers a lot. What sort of advice do you give them?

If you’re going to work in certain schools, classroom management is key. Building relationships with students, being able to motivate them and having high expectations are also important. When you do those things, results will come.

You also have to care. For me, teaching is a ministry and a calling. And when it’s a ministry and a calling, you go out of your way. You go the extra mile to see students achieve. When you do those things, and you care — you want to see students successful — then you get results.

Does your own upbringing help you connect with students here?

Absolutely. I know what they’re dealing with, where you go home and you may not have help with homework. So what I try to do as a teacher is make sure I do everything in class so that parents who are working two or three jobs or don’t have the skills to understand how to give their children a framework for problem solving, or they don’t know the skills of cause and effect for reading — I try to give students all that in the class so that home doesn’t have to worry about it.

Growing up poor motivates me to help these students to be successful, to bridge the achievement gap, so that students that don’t come from the middle class or the upper class can say, “This can be done. My environment doesn’t have to dictate who I am. I can dictate my environment by becoming successful academically.”

Which teacher should we feature next? Send your nominations to Caitlin Moran: cmoran@seattletimes.com.