Jamar London knows all about falling behind through no fault of your own.
“I’ve always loved math, and I was pretty good at it,” says the SMC math professor and Academic Senate President.
But nystagmus held him back. Sometimes called “dancing eyes,” the condition causes involuntary side-to-side movements of the eye that result in impaired vision. All through his school years, unless Jamar was sitting front and center in a classroom, the equations his math teachers scribbled on the board bounced and blurred.
“And I didn’t necessarily speak up for myself,” he admits, sheepishly.
Those memories have made Jamar an unusually empathetic teacher.
“I’ll show students how to access tutors,” he says. “I’ll literally walk my classes over to different student services and show them how it’s done.”
Other early experiences help Jamar see the world through his students’ eyes. He was born and raised in Hawthorne, the second child of a teenage mom who made ends meet working as a hairdresser.
“Even though we were poor, we had a happy childhood,” he recalls. “I had the best grandmother in the world. She stood right by my mom. Their relationship was beautiful. I owe my life to them in more ways than one.”
Jamar’s own education resembles that of his students.
Like them, he attended community college and had to grapple with failure. After a propitious start—earning an A in trigonometry his first term—Jamar failed ignominiously in pre-calculus. Shaken but undeterred, he repeated the course with the same instructor. Ms. Giannini’s praise still rings in his ears: “She’s said: ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you! You actually did it!’”
At community college, failure is unfortunately par for the course. “A few of our students have great math backgrounds, but most are second-chance students who may have been broken by K-12,” Jamar says. Among incoming freshmen who enroll in transfer-level math, only 11 percent successfully complete the course in their first semester. The overall success rate for Corsairs across all introductory college-level math stands at just 44 percent.
When he fails a student, Jamar believes it’s part of his job to help them not internalize that failure.
“I try to take the blame off them, saying: ‘Hey, it’s not necessarily all on you. I played a role in that, too. We both have to improve and learn. Maybe I could have done this better. Am I too laid back? Do I make too many jokes?”
Jamar knew he wanted to be a math teacher since he was a kid. Having earned an unremarkable 2.7 GPA at Leuzinger High School, he was admitted to several Cal State campuses. He opted to attend San Bernardino Valley College in order to stay with his mom, who’d relocated to Rialto, California, weeks before Jamar’s graduation in 1996.
In community college, Jamar received the kind of personal attention from faculty and counselors that would not have been possible at a big state school.
“I was learning how to be a good student,” he says.
He met his best friend at SBVC. Hw spurred him to study hard, earn good grades and, when it came time to choose a transfer school, aim high. They ended up roommates at UCLA, where Jamar acquired valuable teaching experience working as a TA and math tutor.
Moving on to Cal State LA, he earned a master’s degree in math in 2008. He then worked part-time teaching math at five community colleges, and in 2012 he accepted a full-time faculty position at Santa Monica College.
Over the last decade, Jamar has taught every level of math, from basic arithmetic to calculus. He’s served on various departmental committees. Since 2019, he’s also worked on three Academic Senate for California Community Colleges committees.
A year ago, he decided “on a whim” to run for SMC’s Academic Senate. Whim morphed into a mission as Jamar came to see his presidency filling a real institutional need.
“I think math faculty should have a larger voice in the college, along with English faculty and counseling faculty,” Jamar says. “Our voices are important going through this transition,” he explains, referring to the changes ushered in by Assembly Bill 705.
Enacted in 2017, the law requires all California community colleges to have processes in place allowing students to enter and successfully complete transfer-level coursework within a year.
While the English department was able to craft a uniform composition curriculum, the math department needed to create a half-dozen introductory courses to achieve AB 705 compliance.
“Because different areas of study require different types of mathematics,” he says, “we had to run the whole gamut—introductory statistics, precalculus, trigonometry, college algebra, business algebra.”
Jamar was intimately involved in the curriculum overhaul. The new courses were rolled out in 2019, but he still considers them a work in progress. Failure rates remain unacceptably high.
“We have to do a better job,” he says. “I’m completely committed to making sure students at the lowest level have a place at a community college. We cannot shut the door on them. We have to do more as teachers.”
As Academic Senate President, Jamar sees his most important role as galvanizing faculty: “I want them to be motivated and innovative, to do things differently. I want them to rediscover the joy of teaching.”
His unpretentious, easy-going style has served Jamar well. “Being patient, taking the time to talk to people, trying to understand their point-of-view and then trying to get some type of consensus” yields tangible results, he finds. “We’re all here for the same goal: to get our students the best possible education.”
While Jamar enjoys faculty advocacy, he misses the classroom. With SMC’s accreditation process underway this spring, he’s on leave from teaching. He looks forward to being back at the lectern come September. (His favorite course is geometry, though “it might be going away” with the push to move everyone into college-level math.)
To unwind from the thorny curricular and pedagogical issues that fill his workday, Jamar finds release in many outside interests and activities.
“I love basketball: I’m a Lakers season ticket-holder,” he says. “I like to cook, and I love the sound of an acoustic guitar.”
Above all, Jamar is passionate about travel. It began in college, after a roommate talked him into signing up for a UCLA summer study-abroad experience with stops in Brussels, Vienna, London, Prague and Berlin. Seeing those European capitals, Jamar was hooked. He remains a frequent flyer, and he doesn’t sleep a wink during those flights, wanting to savor every blissful, high-altitude moment. A self-described “airplane enthusiast,” he has amassed a large collection of diecast model planes. A related pastime he indulges regularly with his like-minded sister: watching jets take off at LAX.
“I just love seeing these marvelous bits of engineering,” Jamar says. “And when I see the largest one, the Airbus A380, I can’t help but wonder to myself: if we can actually get this 590-ton piece of metal in the air, we can surely get one more student to pass college math.”
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