A twin passion for teaching

Grads take their legal skills into the classroom

Giant faces look down on students passing through the halls at Giaudrone Middle School in Tacoma:  Silly faces with tongues sticking out of mouths full of braces, pretty faces psoing with hands behind heads like a glamorous portrait, and serious faces of students with a lot on their minds.

John and Ryan Prosser, from right, appear amused but help Jaquwan Simmons get another lunch after his fell on the floor at Giaudrone Middle School earlier this month. All photos © THE NEWS TRIBUNE, (Tacoma, WA) [2012] Photos by Janet Jensen, staff photographer. Reprinted with permission.

The 3-foot by 4-foot, black and white photo posters show the faces of more than 100 students, teachers, and administrators at Giaudrone, expressing the individuality and personality of each person and the diversity and dignity of the group as a whole.

It was a project led by John and Ryan Prosser '07, identical twins  who teach humanities at Giaudrone, which was deemed unsuccessful two years ago after reporting some of the state's lowest test scores.

"What these photos say is, 'We are not failures," said John Prosser.

"The great thing about hanging them at the top of the walls is instead of people walking with their heads down, everyone's looking up," Ryan said.

The posters are part of an international participatory art project called the Inside Out Project, which is encouraging communities around the world to create and hang the posters, then sharing them online.

It is just one of the ways "the Twins," are making a difference at a school that was given three years to turn itself around. A federal School Improvement Grant made money available to the school, which has a new administration and nearly new staff devoted to improving the school and students' chances for success.

"So far, GMS is on the right track and its students' test scores continue to improve," John said.

Ryan and John graduated from Western Washington University with degrees in philosophy and were certified as K-8 teachers. They spent a year at Boston College earning master's degrees and then enrolled at Seattle University School of law school with the goal of practicing education law. But after doing so, they found their true calling is teaching.

"Our first love is education," John said.

Ryan Prosser works with students Auzhane Evans, center, and Robert Brito, left.

They have followed similar paths all their lives. They shared a paper route for years, were study partners and roommates, and now share a classroom at Giaudrone, teaching language arts and social studies. There is a moveable wall separating their classrooms, but it is rarely closed. Every day they eat lunch together, both ordering tuna sandwiches from the cafeteria.

"There are seven billion people in the world. Most of them are individuals," John said. "I like being a double."

At first, they were assigned to separate sections at the law school. As they have all their lives, they called and asked to be put in the same classes. Where others tried to separate them, the law school quickly accommodated their requests.

"I thought, 'SU's going to be different. These people are nice.' We had all our classes together."

Both did well. Ryan graduated magna cum laude, and John graduated cum laude and was on the National Moot Court Team. In their 2L and 3L years, they interned in the office of the general counsel at the Washington Education Association.

After law school, Ryan spent nine months working at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction evaluating Individual Education Programs for proper formulation under IDEA, and decided to accept a teaching job in the Lake Washington School District in 2008.

John started practicing at his uncle's law firm in Tacoma, a small, mainly family-law practice, where he was primarily a research attorney. But the next economic downturn led to him being laid off, "which was a blessing, because it led me back into teaching." He started substitute teaching and when he heard about the opportunity to work at Giaudrone, he and Ryan both applied. They were hired at Giaudrone on the same day. "Mr. R" and "Mr. J" as they are known to students, use their legal background in class. They have recently been teaching the U.S. Constitution, using as examples cases ranging from Korematsu to the "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, in which the Supreme Court limited students' free speech rights by ruling against a former high school student who had hung a banner outside his school.

"Our legal background pays off greatly for the students, as they have two lawyers as resources as they work toward a strong understanding of the Constitution," John said. "Lawyering is an old profession, teaching is an older profession. Combining the skills provides my kids access to ideas and skills they might not otherwise encounter until later on in their academic paths."

Among the questions the students wrote about for their final project is whether teens should be held accountable for what they post online when they are away from school and whether they support the death penalty.

"We try to get them thinking about these issues." Ryan said. "We're focusing on critical thinking."

They recently invited Professor from Practice John McKay and Lori Lamb, administrative assistant for the Legal Writing Department, to Giaudrone. Lamb has kept in close contact with them. "She helped us get through law school, that's for sure," John said.

McKay gave the students a great lesson on the Constitution, tailoring his talk for seventh- and eighth-graders and getting them talking about how the law plays a role in their lives.

"How many of you have been treated unfairly?" he asked, and nearly every hand went up.

 "The law is not perfect. There's lots of injustice, but you can make a difference," McKay told them. "You don't have to be a lawyer to make a difference."

John and Ryan hope they are making a difference.

"Young students, middle school students especially, deserve teachers who sincerely care about their growth as people and who are dedicated to helping them reach their potential," John said.

Middle school is always a tough time, with children in a uniquely transitory period in life, in intellectual, emotional, and physical development. Many of the Giaudrone students face huge obstacles. More than three-quarters of them qualify for the free-lunch program, and some of their students come from desperate places: they are homeless, have parents in prison, have been victims of violence or have suffered incredible losses.

John Prosser leads a discussion on the Fourth Amendment. The brothers say their legal background helps their teaching.

Ryan and John started the year having the students write autobiographies, and the teachers were shocked at what they learned.

"Some of them were hard to read," Ryan said. "For some of them, school might be the only place that is safe for them."

There are behavior problems, and the Prossers handle them as they arise.

"Sometimes we do have to send them out of class or be firm with them. They get mad or raise their voices, but you can't take it personally," Ryan said. "And every day, they start with a clean slate."

Still, "They really are a lot of fun," Ryan said. "They are at the age when you can joke with them."

Even as fairly new teachers, the Prossers have taken leadership roles, serving on the school district's Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Committee, coaching various sports and hosting after-school writing clubs.

Both ran for union leadership positions, and though they weren't successful, they play an active role. They are interested in policy work and use their legal skills help them in that arena, but both foresee continuing in education.

"We're interested in protecting public education," Ryan said.

As much as they love it, they don't know that they will be back at Giaudrone next year. They have been told they will be displaced because of seniority, and could be moved to different schools. They would love the chance to teach together again, but will embrace whatever opportunities they can to work with kids.

"Teaching is as pure a method of helping another person as I can imagine," John said. "The SU ideal is social justice. As a teacher, I don't think there's anything more socially just than helping to prepare a student for the rest of his or her life."

Summer 2012