Returning the favor
John Muir teacher Manuel Rustin engages students, earns top teaching award
By Sara Cardine 02/09/2012
In 1996, Manuel Rustin was a bored and listless sophomore attending Laguna Creek High School in South Sacramento and watching his grades nosedive when a teacher reached out to him — and changed the course of his life forever.
“I sort of fell off track,” he recalls. “I just sat there. I didn’t care. I think in my head, I was protesting against the teacher.”
That’s when Craig Murray, his ninth-grade English teacher, pulled him aside. He asked what was up and let the sophomore know that ultimately, he would be the only casualty of his own rebellion.
“In my whole life, no one had ever sat me down and asked me what was in my head,” says Rustin. “That really meant a lot for me and resulted in a turnaround.”
On Jan. 31, that turnaround culminated in a personal victory when Rustin, who now teaches history and economics and heads John Muir High School’s Arts, Entertainment and Media academy, was awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award. Labeled by Teacher Magazine as “the Oscars of teaching,” this year’s honor was bestowed on 39 educators across the nation and came with a remarkable $25,000 purse.
The award singles out educators for their exceptional instructional talents and leadership and their ability to engage and inspire students. One step inside Rustin’s second-floor classroom is all it takes to understand why the 32-year-old teacher and Associated Student Body adviser won this year’s honors. Nearly every square foot of wall space presents an opportunity for contemplation on topics related to history, from war and revolution to corporatization and the struggle for peace and freedom.
“I’m here all day, and I’m a very visual person,” Rustin says. “Students are going to space out, so anywhere they look, they’re going to learn something.”
A bright red Nike poster of the company’s signature swoosh, for example, is paired with a handwritten sign that reads, “Why does Nike refuse to make shoes in the USA?” Another poster of a Native American asks, “Was what happened to Native Americans an example of genocide?”
The provocations are more than distractions from the classroom lessons — each display references a specific state or federal standard that corresponds to the overall message. “History, it all connects somehow,” Rustin explains. “This is just helping them see that connection.”
As compelling as Rustin’s visuals are, his methods for reaching students on a level that resonates with their daily experiences are even more so. One assignment asked students to create a Facebook page for each branch of the government. Others involve writing poems about history or essays on topics ranging from gun control to same-sex marriage.
For 2011 Muir graduate Christian Cayetano, Rustin’s approach made sitting through history and economics much more engaging.
“I always enjoyed going to Mr. Rustin’s class knowing that everyday he made the class a fun learning environment,” the 19-year-old Cal State San Marcos student said in an email interview. “Students think of him as a great leader and role model. Also, being a young teacher, he really knew how to collaborate with us.”
Exercises and innovative lesson plans are part of what Rustin learned in his own training at UCLA, where he majored in history with a minor in education studies, and as a student of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
It was there, in particular, he realized the impact he could make as a black male educator on students from urban communities like the one he’d grown up in. After graduating from Harvard in 2004, Rustin went took a job at Sacramento’s Kennedy High School, where he taught history for four years.
“It was easy to connect with (students), because I wasn’t much older than them, and I was from the community,” he says. “I had to take advantage that I already had their attention at least, and I needed to do the best I could with that.”
In 2008, when Rustin was looking for a change and an even greater challenge, he sought out teaching jobs in Southern California. That’s when he heard Muir High School was undergoing a reinvention that would include an overhaul of the curriculum and a rebuilding of its teaching staff. Rustin joined the team and today works as one of 19 teachers in the Arts, Entertainment and Media academy. It’s hard for him to accept full credit for the Milken award; he instantly points out much of what he does in the classroom is being done by his colleagues as well.
“A lot of teachers at Muir do these things. It’s part of their collaboration,” Rustin says. “That’s what’s so exciting about Muir—so many teachers are creating this vibrant curriculum. It’s a real family here.”
That a distinction as high as the Milken Educator Award was earned from among the teaching ranks at Muir is a testament to improvements being made throughout the district, according to PUSD Superintendent Jon Gundry.
"Mr. Rustin's commitment to his students and belief in their ability is indicative of the culture of high expectations that we are establishing in Pasadena," said Pasadena Unified School District superintendent Jon Gundry. "A veteran of the Muir reinvention winning this prestigious award validates the hard work that has been happening at John Muir High School."
As for Rustin, when he thinks about Mr. Murray, who once pulled him from the brink of disengagement, he hopes he can be that way with his kids.
“I try to be as much as possible,” he confesses. “I just think back — if he hadn’t done that, who knows?”