When Francis Pina walks the halls of Charlestown High School in Boston, he sees a student body that reflects the rich cultural diversity of America.
“What I love about my students is really what I love about my district. It is just so diverse,” says Francis, a ninth and 10th grade math teacher at Charlestown High, a district school in Boston’s oldest neighborhood.
Many of the school’s more than 900 students are newcomers whose families hail from Jamaica, Vietnam, China, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, among other nations.
“The great thing about that diversity is that students are constantly learning about community. They are always interacting with someone who might have a different religious or cultural practice,” Francis says.
“There is enormous value in navigating the differences among people and their experiences, and in finding ways to build connections.”
Francis’ emphasis on making strong personal connections serves him well teaching students an integrated curriculum of Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry.
In every class, he aims to find ways to help students understand the relevance of course work in their lives. For instance, this year Francis had students complete research on a social justice issue and then create infographics that charted their findings and conclusions.
“When I first started teaching, I would hear students saying, ‘When I am I going to use this in my life? When am I going to need this?’ The reality was, they were just frustrated. They didn’t see anything in class that was meaningful,” Francis says.
To empower his students, Francis gives them as much choice as possible. He offers students the option to complete any two of four math worksheets when reviewing for an assessment. The assignments are differentiated by level of difficulty and Francis awards extra credit to students who complete more than two.
“My biggest goal is for students to feel that they have agency, that they are an active participant in their learning and what they do has purpose. I want my students to feel empowered to control their own destiny.”
A native Bostonian, Francis completed a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Boston University, majoring in economics. He caught the teaching bug as a math tutor for a local nonprofit, where he discovered a knack for making challenging math concepts understandable.
Since then, he has earned a Master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was a member of the Better Math Teaching Network, which seeks ways to make high school math curriculum more student centered, a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow in 2017-2018, and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Senior Fellow during 2018-2019.
Francis, now in his sixth year of teaching, says his next goal is to earn National Board Certification.
“I want to do what I can to be consistently great in the classroom. That’s what drives me,” he says.
Francis places an emphasis on academic rigor, but he also bonds with students by being authentic, which includes sharing his passion for slam poetry.
“I can build these connections with students quicker because we are speaking the same language,” he says.
Francis also makes sure he has snacks like clementines or granola bars at the ready on his desk. It’s a way to encourage one-on-one interaction and gives students – some of whom travel an hour to get to school – a boost during a long day.
“Some of my students are not eating breakfast or eating lunch,” he says. “We are asking them to understand a lot. It’s pretty demanding curriculum so they need to have the energy to keep up.”
As he strives to improve his craft, Francis is eager to learn from other teachers. He believes educators benefit from professional development opportunities where “teachers lead sessions to share their best practices, so we not only see each other as professionals but also as a resource.”
As a black male teacher in a profession needing more leaders of color, Francis says there is added pressure.
“There can be an invisible tax on teachers of color,” Francis says. “I could be in the middle of a lesson and a student might need a moment to vent and process something with somebody they trust. I have to use all my teaching moves – all of my strategies – to help them.”
Francis believes a few key qualities can make a good teacher great.
“First, you need to be a reflective practitioner. You need to develop a skill set where, at the end of the day, you take some space for yourself to reflect on why something happened and how to improve and get better,” he says.
“The second thing is you need a strong support system. You need to have someone you can speak to when things are challenging, so you don’t feel like you are alone.”