Impact Stories » Bess Toyama: AP Seminar Teacher

Bess Toyama: AP Seminar Teacher

It started with a text. Or, rather, ended with a text.

Bess Toyama spent two years teaching in Kansas City Public Schools as part of the Teach For America program. Rounding out her Teach For America commitment, she applied for a job at the Kauffman School. At the last minute, she decided to withdraw her application and instead move back home to Sacramento, Calif.

But Kauffman School CEO Hannah Lofthus had other ideas. She sent a text to Bess that said: “Make the choice to be here.”

“She gave me two days to decide,” Bess laughs. “She had shown so much faith in me. I came back to meet with her, and when I walked out of her office, I knew I’d be coming back and that I would be a better teacher for it.”

Bess is now in her sixth year of teaching at the Kauffman School and will be founding the AP Seminar class in the high school. Previously, she taught middle school guided reading. When they come to the school, many of Bess’ students were reading at a second- or third-grade level.

“That sounds like they’re behind by a lot but that’s the majority our students,” she explains. “The best thing is seeing our students grow. They work really, really hard. We believe in them and we care about them. We tell them they can do it. The results are astounding.”

And Bess is growing too, thanks to intensive professional development and coaching provided by school leadership.

“Personal improvement is one of the biggest wins I’ve had here,” she says. “I ask myself every day what I could have done better. I ask myself—I don’t wait for others to ask. I’m doing more on my own but with support from my colleagues.”

Live, in-the-moment coaching is part of the culture at the Kauffman School.

“I find out what I can improve as I’m doing it,” Bess says. “I refine lesson plans on the spot. I’m going from good to great.”

While Kauffman School takes academics seriously, there’s still room for fun. Bess is the creator of “Fun Fridays,” a special incentive for students who are excelling behaviorally.
“Fun Friday is the highlight for students who are meeting expectations,” she says. “It’s really silly. It could be relay races or dance parties. It’s a reward for being an excellent student, because that’s what we ask. We ask them to be excellent. Not perfect. Excellent. It’s so worth it to see them happy.” -Bess Toyama