Paul Ma is a recipient of the San Francisco Education Fund’s 2015-16 Distinguished Service Award.
Volunteer Paul Ma seems to constantly be in motion.
“You rarely see him standing still,” observes one student in the class where Paul dedicates his time each week. “He’s a man of words and action; he doesn’t like to stand still.”
While that attribute might make it tough to survive a 9-to-5 desk job, it’s perfect for Paul’s role as a volunteer in Amber Zertuche’s junior year engineering class at Philip & Sala Burton High School. With Paul there every Friday, students have two experienced engineers in the room to help them troubleshoot hands-on projects.
“Sometimes we’ll be in a project and the whole group will be at a standstill,” said Ms. Zertuche, who nominated Paul for our Distinguished Service Award. “I give them options and parts to try — you try this tool and try this part — and I say ‘Well, thank goodness it’s Thursday, Paul is going to be here tomorrow.’”
“It’s really helpful because sometimes the teacher can’t get to everyone,” added student Maureen. “And he really knows what he’s doing.”
Every week, Paul and Ms. Zertuche work together to assist groups of students as they tackle assignments. In March, the class kicked off a robotics unit with an activity that called for programming a mechanical buzzer or timer to go off at specific moments. The two adults are nearly always on their feet. Zertuche points out students for Paul to help, and both walk around the room to check on each group. “It’s kind of seamless now,” she said of their partnership.
Paul, who is finishing his second year of volunteering at Burton, helps students problem solve not by giving them the answers, but by challenging them to think of different solutions and helping them look at a project from another angle, Ms. Zertuche said.
“There was a project where students were really struggling, but he was there to help,” one student said. “We were stuck because one of our components wasn’t working. So he just pitched ideas. All those ideas gave us a foundation to start, and we got the project done.”
Ms. Zertuche, a metrology engineer who once worked on parts for James Webb Space Telescope before becoming a teacher, said she’s grateful to have someone help her ensure the class of more than 30 students can stay on track.
“He is able to take the time that the student needs to learn a skill or to build something, and that’s really rare,” Ms. Zertuche said. “I think it’s what our education system needs more of, because not everybody learns super quick and not everybody learns at the pace that we’re teaching them. They need time. They need someone like Paul in the room who is patient and asks questions.”
For that and more, students look forward to seeing Paul each week. “It’s not just for the tutoring,” Ms. Zertuche said. “It’s for the stories from Paul about engineering.”
And Paul has more than 30 years’ worth of stories to tell. Before retiring in 2014, he climbed the ladder to become a manager at Lockheed Martin, known for its work in aerospace, defense and security. One student who dreams of being an aerospace engineer constantly asks Paul questions, Ms. Zertuche said.
“All of this brings back so much memory of how I learned engineering and how I learned physics,” Paul said. “Like what they’re doing now with the robotics, we’re trying to control something with a computer. I did that in college.”
At the beginning of the class, during warm-up, Paul occasionally interjects to connect the activity to his time in the field, or Ms. Zertuche asks Paul if he has anything to add. Paul has also helped students prepare for college and job interviews by giving them advice from when he interviewed talent for Lockheed Martin.
“There are little learning opportunities where I get back to my own career, and I try to do that as much as possible because I’m trying to help them understand that what they’re doing in the classroom now is what they’ll be doing at work,” Paul said. “It’s real life what they’re doing.”
One reason Paul loves volunteering at this school is because he has something in common with many students there: He and his family are immigrants. After moving to the United States from Hong Kong at the age of five, Paul had to quickly learn a new language and navigate his education as a first-generation college student.
“As an immigrant, I struggled with reading and writing and had poor communication skills,” Paul said. “I eventually became better but still needed to work harder at it than co-workers, and I know that it can severely limit career opportunities. When I see students with poor communication skills, I would tell them about my struggles, how important it is in the workplace, and that it can be overcome with practice.”
He also simply loves being in a classroom, especially for the moments when everything just clicks.
“It’s just seeing them when the light bulb comes on,” Paul said. “You see them with a big smile or you see them say “Aha,” and you know it because you see it in their face, you hear it — [and it’s] just that elation — that feeling that you have that you were responsible for helping that [student] understand a concept or principle.”
As he walks around the hallways and corridors in the school, staff always say hello and students shooting hoops ask him to join their game.
“We all love Paul,” Maureen said.
Read about the other two recipients of the 2015-16 Distinguished Service Awards:
Linda Fawkes, a Literacy Program volunteer at Dr. Charles R. Drew College Preparatory Academy.
Dropbox, a Circle the Schools corporate partner at Mission High School.
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