Irma Magana brings her experiences into the classroom.
By Jesse Mintz
Photography by Jennifer Rocholl
Ask a teacher why they chose their profession and most will tell you a story about a teacher in their own life, who left an impression. Great teachers inspire great teachers.
But not Irma Magana. She’s one of a kind—a self-made teacher with 14 years worth of experience at the front of a Lakewood High School classroom.
While this Long Beach, California native has had plenty of teachers who were nice and dedicated—none were individuals she connected with on a personal level. “When I became a teacher, I wanted to be that person I wish I had in high school,” she says with a chuckle. “And apparently it worked, because I have some really great connections with my students.”
As for family role models, she comments matter-of-factly, “My mom was a single mom, working hard, and she just made sure I had a roof and food in the fridge. The rest, I took care of myself.”
With her mom working and no teachers to turn to, Irma didn’t have anyone to motivate her. She sees that same experience in her students every day.
Hundreds of students have passed through her class over the years, many of whom struggle with issues beyond the classroom like broken homes, poverty and gang violence.
In light of this, for every college graduation she attends to support a former student, there’s a question mark in her mind about what happened to another promising young person. The compassion that comes with this mindset is what has enabled her to connect with students.
Not normally one to brag, Irma is in an especially good mood during our interview for this very reason: student connection. As she shares, a student from more than decade ago just called out of the blue to thank her. “He’s 26 now, which is a little scary, and interning with Atlantic Records” she says. “He was one of my students who struggled. He said I was always in the back of his mind, and he wanted to say hello.”
That interaction will keep this California educator buzzing for months.
Irma relishes the role of teacher, confidant, friend and motivator. While this dedication started long before she got involved with WE 11 years ago, the WE Movement did something to help invigorate her passion.
There she was, home sick from school watching the Oprah Winfrey Show when a young Craig Kielburger walked onto the screen, sat down with the program’s iconic host and began talking about students across the country coming together to change their communities.
“I thought, ‘I have struggling students; this is the thing, something for them to get involved in,’” recalls Irma. She brought the idea to class and her students were all in. “They wanted to do it, to take ownership, and years later, new students every year are still doing it.”
Their first year involved with WE Schools, the students held a bake sale at the homecoming fair that raised $800 to help build the Baraka Hospital in Kenya. In the years since, they’ve fundraised thousands of dollars for charity, in addition to supporting local homeless shelters by collecting food, toiletries, blankets and socks. Irma is especially proud of how they’ve given back, considering most of her students qualify for Title 1 services to assist with the cost of meals at school.
And then there was last year, a special year even by Irma’s high standards.
“Lakewood is kind of sleepy, hardly anything happens here,” Irma admits. That is, until a car wash fundraiser organized by the students took a star-studded turn when Fast and the Furious star Tyrese Gibson rolled up to lend a hand.
“Having Tyrese here to recognize our club, the students were surprised and honoured. They felt like they’ve done something… that all of their work does matter.”
Not surprisingly, the club has grown even larger this year. With new officers and new energy, Irma has taken a backseat as veteran students take the helm, inspiring others to get involved, while organizing a school-wide coin drive for hurricane and earthquake victims.
“Everything we’ve done has been to show my students they can move mountains if they try,” Irma says with pride. “I’ve turned my past experiences and struggles into positive energy in the classroom. I want to make every student feel like they matter.”