The contemporary American education system has serious problems of inequality and needs teachers who will provide support for underprivileged students, 2005 National Teacher of the Year Jason Kamras said at a Pierson College Master’s Tea Tuesday.

Speaking to approximately 30 students, faculty and other guests, Kamras described his evolution from a Princeton undergraduate reluctantly pondering a law career to a teacher at a public middle school in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighborhood, where he won the teaching prize.

Kamras said he first became interested in teaching during the summer following his sophomore year, when he volunteered as a teacher in the public schools of Sacramento, Calif. After witnessing the “stark inequities” faced by poorer students in urban public schools, which he said lacked the funding and enthusiastic teachers present at schools in more affluent areas, Kamras said he decided to continue as a volunteer teacher during the academic year.

Kamras also spoke about the broader issues confronting the public school system. He said a major difficulty for schools is the fact that parents supporting a family at the poverty level cannot afford to invest time in their children’s education, so teachers must be even more proactive in students’ lives.

The politics of school administration can also be an impediment to educational equality, Kamras said.

“People need to understand the political dynamics,” he said. “It’s a process of creating relationships.”

Rather than heading to law school after graduating from Princeton in 1995, Kamras enrolled in the newly formed Teach For America program, which sends participants to teach in rural and inner-city public schools for two-year terms. Kamras was sent to teach sixth-grade math at John Phillip Sousa Middle School in Washington, D.C., a school in which 90 percent of students received a discount on school lunches and 80 percent of graduating eighth graders tested below average in math.

Kamras cut the percentage of students failing a state standardized math exam by making a number of curricular changes. He doubled the time allotted for math instruction and created two separate math tracks for seventh and eighth grade students. He said he also credits unconventional and fun classroom practices — using tools such as the Internet and DVD creation software, and having students create autobiographical photo-essays — for improved performances on exams.

While teaching at John Phillip Sousa, Kamras also took off time to earn a Master’s degree in education at Harvard University. But he said he is generally unimpressed by teacher educational programs because he thinks they often have vague and ineffectual curriculums.

“They are not rigorous, and they don’t prepare people very well,” he said.

Kamras said he believes public schools need more inspired teachers, willing to put in the extra work that will help close the gap between rich and poor students.

Some students at the tea said they were impressed by Kamras’ choice to become a teacher, given the range opportunities his Ivy League education might have otherwise given him.

“As somebody from an affluent background, but who does teaching anyway, his life is a track that mine could go on,” Matt Michaelson ’09 said.

Amy Rothschild ’09 said that while she found Kamras’s story interesting, she wished he would have spoken more candidly about issues of race pertaining to inequality in education.

“He did manage to frame the issue of failing schools without using racially charged vocabulary,” she said. “He really just stuck to things that are not as controversial.”

After he finishes touring the nation, Kamras said he plans to return to teaching next year, and said he eventually hopes to start his own school.