Meet Paiab Pasha Thao — tutor, mentor, role model, City Year Corps Member and DIRECTV Math Achievement Award winner.

  • Aug 29, 2014


Not long ago we introduced you to a group of very special young people, the winners of DIRECTV’s first-ever Math Achievement Awards. Each of them had spent twelve months as City Year Corps Members, serving as tutors and mentors to struggling students in high-poverty communities.

What really got our attention was the outstanding impact these folks had as math tutors. So we decided to take a closer look.

With that, we give you the next in our series of profiles, Paiab Pasha Thao (right).


Congratulations on your award! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a City Year Corps Member.

I am from Madison, Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin Madison and am majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership with a certificate in Education Policy Studies. I am currently taking a break from school while I start my second year of service with City Year.

I serve with City Year because it is my mission to always be connected to education. Though my service, I want to be a part of building and embodying a school culture that values community, equality, safety, and excellence. In addition, I serve because I want others to see education as an art and an outlet of expression. Lastly, I serve to ensure that all people receive the education they are entitled to. City Year gives me this unique opportunity.


What can you tell us about the school where you served, and any particular challenges you faced as a tutor and mentor?

I served at John Muir Middle School in South Los Angeles. The school is a little over 1,200 students from sixth to eighth grade. The ethnic background is about 20% Black and 80% Latino. Some challenges I faced as a tutor and mentor at Muir was mainly a culture shock, not only for me but for my students. I come from a different culture than many of our students. However, it was through building key relationships and partnerships with teachers that really allowed me to bridge the gap I had with my students.


What about your history with math? Have the concepts always come easily to you, or did you struggle with the subject? Did you have a great math teacher or mentor that influenced your ability to inspire math achievement?

When I was younger, math was a subject that I got fairly easily. I remember being in 3rd grade and doing 5th grade math. However, as I moved towards calculus I struggled with my math skills. I do know, however, that with perseverance and the help of my math teachers and my brother I was able to make it through all of my math classes. For me, when I look at math I know there is always a way I can track how I got my answer and check for accuracy, and that is something I like to pass onto my students as well.


What math concept/unit was the most challenging for your students to grasp, and how did you overcome that?

Many of my students were multiple grade levels behind in math. Therefore, many of the skills that were challenging to them were foundational skills such as multiplication and division. However, as the year progressed, we worked more on equations and combining like terms. For many of my students, understanding the steps of solving one and or two step equations was providing them differentiated support. We color coded like terms as well as the steps we took when solving the equations. My students were able to better understand concepts through both tangible concepts and visuals.


Please share your favorite math-related anecdote from your time at John Muir Middle School. Was there one student that really struggled to grasp a math concept that finally had an “a-ha!” moment?

My favorite math moment was when I saw a student of mine teach another student in the class a concept we had recently gone over in an individual session. It solidified that he knew the concept and was confident enough in his understanding to share it with a classmate. We worked really hard with multiple ways to understand distributive properties. In the beginning we color coded different coefficients and eventually used candy to represent coefficients. When showing the student different ways to grasp the concept of like terms as well as distribution, I noticed he had an “a-ha” moment.


What advice do you have for teachers, mentors and other City Year Corps Members that work with students who struggle with math?

 I would encourage all teachers, mentors and City Year Corps members to engage with their students and utilize the different strategies of looking at a math problem. I used my personal experiences to help me approach my students, and I believe everyone has the potential to tap into how a student learns math best by providing differentiated support.


DIRECTV is committed to supporting (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning at K-12 schools, with a strong focus on math as the foundation for organized thinking and problem-solving. What are your thoughts on the importance of STEM subjects, and especially math, for today’s students and their futures?

 As a student, I rarely remember STEM being a strong focus. Therefore, as I continued to high school and college, I focused less on STEM because the efforts weren’t there. I believe STEM is especially important because as with our other core subjects, our skills in STEM will continue with us outside of school.


Lastly, what about your future? What are your plans?

After my senior Corps year, I plan to go back to the University of Wisconsin Madison to complete my undergraduate degree in Community and Nonprofit Leadership with a certificate in Education Policy Studies. In addition, I plan to apply to graduate school at UCLA. Ultimately I would like to be a principal.

 —Stephen Vincent D’Emidio

NOTE: For more information about City Year, please visit their web site.