This spring we had some terrific student speakers at the School of Education’s Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools credential graduation. The speech that follows was given by Alessia Cook, who completed the multiple subjects credential program and received an award for Reflective and Integrated Teaching Practice. She is excited to be teaching 4th grade at Hesperian Elementary in San Lorenzo Unified next year with a wonderful team of teachers.
My parents always thought I should go into education. Many years ago, when I was freshly out of college, we sat together at the dining room table and I rebuffed my mom’s suggestion. I remember the exact words I used: I told them, laughing, that “I wasn’t ready” to become a teacher. I wanted something else -‐ I wasn’t sure what -‐ to happen first. Maybe I resisted because I sensed that they knew about some part of me that I was only just discovering. Ten years later, however, here I am: looking with some trepidation about that first year on my own, but mostly great excitement, toward a career I can’t wait to begin. Turns out they knew me pretty well.
I’ve spent the last week thinking about my experience at Mills, trying to decide what to say tonight. I wondered if there was a way to represent this group of extraordinary people with whom I have shared the journey of the last year, even though we’re all different in any number of ways. So I decided to begin by sharing a few of the things I’ve learned from my colleagues in the last ten months.
I’ve learned when to stop pushing, and that sometimes being too forward can make someone suspicious. That the absence of some of our classmates here tonight speaks to how much more we have to do in order to be truly inclusive and live a social justice stance because there is no neutral. That even though I didn’t feel my own authority when I was 23 and couldn’t imagine holding the responsibility of a classroom, some people seem hold that presence from birth. That most elementary school teachers, other than me, really do have mountains of art supplies in their homes, and probably in their bags right now. That you can live and breathe being a teacher and it doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time working. That there are games I actually like, like eyeball tag. That there are infinite configurations of insightful, fierce, generous and inquisitive personalities. That my own questioning of how I could have done something better is exactly what I need to keep doing. And to the secondary folks, I’ve learned that even though you still sometimes feel like the cool, older, more rebellious kids who smoke in the parking lot and collectively might have more tattoos and piercings, that you’re still part of the same web. You help all of us question the status quo, and we can’t do any of our work without each other.
This was the year when I learned that one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received could turn out to be a particular student telling me, “That was kinda interesting, I thought it was gonna be boring, but it kind of wasn’t.”
I’ve learned that we all came here for different reasons.
My dad was a career educator, first as a classroom teacher and later as a math-‐ science program coordinator and teacher of other teachers. He loved his work. He once came home at the end of a day at school, and keep in mind this was about 35 years into his career, and said, without any sense of irony, “I have the best job in the world.” He was the epitome of an enthusiastic lifelong learner. I always knew how admired he was by both students and other teachers, but truthfully I didn’t pay close attention to that when I was growing up. I just loved him because he was my dad.
I didn’t decide to become a teacher until after I lost him three years ago. One of the most difficult parts of the decision to become a teacher was regretting that I had lost the greatest model and mentor I could have hoped for before I even began my career. What has been so extraordinary for me about the community at Mills is that it has fulfilled what is otherwise an incredibly painful gap for me. Our professors, supervisors, and my colleagues have enriched my life and widened my perspective in ways I didn’t know were possible.
When I tell people I’m going into teaching, they often respond with some version of, “Good for you! Thank you. I could never do that job, but we need more good teachers in the world” and to be honest, this response drives me insane. I’ve struggled to figure out exactly why it bothers me, but I think it’s mostly because I don’t consider teaching a sacrifice and I don’t want to be treated like a martyr. I’m becoming a teacher because I want to use my strengths and my interests to do something I truly enjoy. Every time I walk into a new classroom, I can’t wait to get to know the students in there. That is my touchstone and the feeling that I know will sustain me when I face the challenges and moments of self-‐doubt that are sure to come.
As you can see, I learned a tremendous amount this year. And one of the people who taught me the most was Vicki [LaBoskey]. I learned from her that even without my dad here, there are models of everything I aspire to be as a teacher, mentor, and a human being, and that can include going on a passionate rant in the middle of class and making sure your students know exactly what you value.
During our recent visit to Malaysia, we spent one great day on a strange historical quest in Kuala Pilah, a town about one hour south of Kuala Lumpur. We went to find the school where my wife’s dad had taught during his three-year stint in the Peace Corps after college from 1964-1968. We didn’t know what we would find when we got there. It was an educational adventure for us, one in which we learned that quintessential lesson of travel: no matter where you go, things are more similar than they are different.
We got there by taking a commuter train to Seremban, then caught a bus to downtown Kuala Pilah. We started by walking around the town, taking pictures of places Tim might have traveled: The main street, with its KFC and Pizza Hut, some of the side streets with the Chinese-owned businesses, and the bus station. Then, armed with our GPS-enabled cell phone, we began the walk along the road up to the school, which was about a mile away.
The security guard at the school’s main gate didn’t speak any English, and after taking our names down on the visitor sheet, let us go without any hassle, hugely different from what we would have experienced in the US, given our heightened fear of kidnappings.
After a few minutes, we began attracting some attention from the students, who approached us and asked us where we were from. “California, United States.” Kind of like saying, “I’ve come from Mars to see you go to school.” What the heck were we doing there, they must have wondered. We tried to explain that Rebecca’s dad had taught there, but we’re not sure it got through.
Ultimately we walked up to the main school building to peer into classrooms, at which point we finally ran into a teacher, Ms. Ying-Ying. She was doing a homework session with some students, but she was gracious enough to find someone to cover for her and take us to the principal’s office. There it was arranged for another teacher to show us around while Ying-Ying finished up with her students.
Our tour guide, whose name eludes me now, showed us all around the school grounds. I took pictures of everything, including some of the curious students, who waved and smiled at us like crazy. Most of these kids had never met Americans, much less young American women, before, and were excited, shy, and happy to practice some English. Apparently the first thing people in Malaysia learn to say in English is, “Where are you from?”, because every single one of the kids we encountered asked us.
The teacher explained that this school was now a regional, or “state,” sports academy, essentially a boarding school where boys and girls who excelled at sports from around the area were sent to develop their skills. The best students were then plucked for the national sports academies, where they did the same thing, and the teams they were on then played the state schools. So the state schools lost their best players, only to have to play them later — pretty unfair.
The students had to qualify, so they didn’t have to pay, but with the kids’ schedule and emphasis on sports, the teachers lamented that the kids didn’t really learn anything but sports. They went to class during the day, did sports practice in the early afternoon, and then they were basically too tired to do homework. So the teachers would assign homework and then do it with the students, since they didn’t have time to really work on school outside of school. Not much of an opportunity to let that class work sink in.
We met a second teacher, who was a teacher/soccer coach, and he explained about the problems the school had. And here’s where the similarities to the American school system really started to become uncanny.
“These are kids who really need more time in school, and less time playing sports,” he complained, “since they aren’t the best students to begin with. But we put them in a school that emphasizes sport, so they don’t become better students.” Emphasizing sports over education? No way.
Another problem — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — is that schools are underfunded in general, and in the sports schools like theirs, the money that does come is for better sports equipment. The stadium and the field was brand new, and gorgeous, while the classrooms that we saw were the exact same ones that Rebecca’s dad had taught classes in 50 years ago. On top of that, the Malaysian equivalent of the Department of Education keeps coming up with new theories on how to make students do better, and keeps changing the curriculum and increasing the number of standardized tests to make it “better.” Without consulting the practitioners, who, despite years of experience, are regarded not as professionals, but as babysitters. Teaching isn’t respected in Malaysia, he told us; teachers are underpaid and disregarded by the government. No kidding!
The teacher/coach saved us a bus ride and drove us back to Seremban, since he lived out there and was headed back for a break before soccer practice. He talked to us the whole way about education, and teaching, and how he loved it despite the obstacles. “The students that remember you the most were your worst students. The good ones go off and forget their teachers, become lawyers or doctors, someone important.” Of course he was really looking forward to a time when he didn’t have to work anymore, since it was getting harder each year to deal with the bureaucracy of Education.
So we had to travel thousands of miles to hear the same story we hear from all of the teachers we know. As they say in Asia, “Same same, but different.” It’s too bad that our worst habits are becoming the norm all around the world, while some countries like Korea and Finland, countries that invest in education, see test scores and literacy rising. I wish I could say that things are looking up, but I don’t know that it’s going to get better in the next however many years before we have kids. So I guess we’ll be forced to supplement school with stimulating activities at home, the way our parents did for us.
One thing is for sure, though: we will be traveling with our kids, so they get the same kind of quality experience we had in Kuala Pilah. That’s how they’ll learn that even though people may look and sound different, that really, we’re all the same and deal with the same kinds of problems. After all, that’s the most important thing for someone to learn anyway.
Danielle Strollo is free-lance writer, traveler, and development officer. She is currently looking for a good job in the Bay Area.
“Teachers must recognize in a conscious and deliberate manner their own worth as an interpretive community” (Fecho 1993).
Somehow, the pervasive and ridiculous saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” had escaped my ears until I was in my mid-twenties. I remember hearing it in a movie while working on my credential at Mills and couldn’t believe that this quote could possibly be so widespread. I knew at that point, from first hand experience, what a complex art it is to be a teacher, how deeply one has to know one’s subject, students, and self in order to teach well. This quote seemed profoundly mistaken to me.
Over the years, as I have talked about my work with friends and family, I have been struck by their common misconceptions of what teachers do. When I arrive at a dinner date with friends and say, “Sorry I’m late. I was at work until six today,” I am often met with inquiring gazes, and sometimes asked, “so…what do you all afternoon? Don’t the kids leave at 2:15?” I am continually surprised that many people do not know a teacher’s job goes on long after the bell rings. And so I bring my busy and yet unseen afternoon into the light, telling them about the thought and preparation that goes into each lesson, my assessment of student work, collaboration with colleagues, and communication with parents. Amidst these daily components of my job, I may also share about the unexpected challenges that have arisen on that particular day, working to get Medical set up for a family, keeping a student late to re-teach an important math concept, or gathering classroom materials for a newly admitted student. In telling these stories of what it truly means to be a teacher, I can do my part to slowly debunk the oppressive and mistaken portrait of the teacher that has been drawn in our minds.
So often teachers are overworked and have little extra time to be involved in the creation and critique of education discourse. It is a marginalization cycle that perpetuates itself: policy-makers are removed from the classroom and so do not seek to change the circumstances that teachers face, and since the public is not familiar with the reality of teaching, many continue to believe stories about the lazy or ignorant teacher. Seeing themselves reflected as such in the public eye, teachers often internalize these erroneous concepts, and then remain further silenced. If we are to break out of this system of teacher marginalization, we as teachers must recognize our own worth. Our voices must extend beyond our classroom walls, as we confer and deliberate within teacher communities. We must share our stories with others and develop a language for challenging misconceptions when we hear them. By bringing our expertise into the formal and informal arenas of education discourse, the meaningful, difficult, and activist work that we engage in daily can be more publicly seen and understood.
My mother went to college with the woman who has become Miss Manners, and now, whenever my mother travels to Washington, D.C., she and Miss Manners get together for tea. I like to imagine these teas: Miss Manners with her signature chignon and long-sleeved, Victorian-inspired white blouse; my mother in her hiking boots and jeans. They must sit in wing chairs, upholstered in some dark material, with the china teapot on a small table in between them. However, once I have set the scene, my imagination fails. What do they talk about? My mother would be completely bored by a discussion of the virtues of blue-black ink and the correct way to accept an invitation. But that, according to my mother, is not really what Miss Manners teaches. She says that Miss Manners’ message is that manners are about what makes the other person feel comfortable.
It is interesting to think of manners that way. It means that I say “please” and “thank you” not just because it’s polite, but because it’s a way to really acknowledge another person’s efforts on my behalf. Manners, then, are not like traffic signals –that is, a clear set of rules to help you be respectful of others. Manners are variable and cultural. For example, I recently received an email from someone who addressed me as Rachel, but who signed herself as Ms. Smith. I was surprised by this; I thought that if she was being formal, she should write to Ms. Lefkowitz. But I sign my emails Rachel, so maybe she was trying to be respectful of what I like, while showing me that she had a different expectation. Or maybe she wanted me to address her more formally because she is a teacher. It was hard to know, because I wasn’t sure what she was thinking.
This kind of misunderstanding must happen all the time, when expectations are not the same. I know that Mills asks us to be curious as we work and learn, and manners are another place where we could apply that curiosity. I could have written back to Ms. Smith, and said that at Mills we use first names, but did she prefer a more formal title? That would have alerted her to what makes us comfortable, and given her a chance to explain her convention and let us know if that would be better for her. I didn’t do that in part because I didn’t think of it, but also because it is so uncomfortable to call out a difference in expectations. It really underscores that sometimes what makes one person comfortable is going to take precedence. If Ms. Smith had come to Mills, she would have had to use her first name; our culture would have trumped. But could we be more flexible? Could we call some students, professors, or office workers, Ms, some by their titles, and some by their first names? Could we do this without creating a sense of disrespect for any?
I would like to have tea with Miss Manners someday myself, to ask her how we can better create flexibility between cultural practices and manners’ ultimate goal of comfort for others, especially those whose cultures or practices are different. I suspect that we would have an interesting discussion about it because, as formal as she is, she lets my mother’s hiking boots into her beautifully appointed living room.
The rainbow wheel of doom was circling at a slow speed on my computer screen. As I waited for an automated report to assemble itself into the format I had requested, I felt increasingly irritated:
“Why is this taking so long? This computer is so slow!”
And even after the rainbow wheel disappeared:
“How come this report doesn’t provide all the data I need in one place?!?”
Then, I glanced at the message on my new coffee mug:
“Breathe in. Breath Out.”
With a deep exhalation, I tried to remember when I was first introduced to the magic of the data report I was now so impatiently awaiting. I recalled my amazement that in an instant, I was provided with a long list of up-to-date facts about individual applicants that I could filter and sort in endless ways. I had been delighted that I had easy and timely access to thousands of records, and that I could display an overview of our application process with a few quick strokes of the keyboard. Breathtaking, impressive, and so efficient!
As I glanced again at my coffee mug, I reflected on the contrast between that initial sense of astonishment and my current sense of annoyance and frustration. I considered how remarkable it truly is that so many dimensions of empirical knowledge about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni can be entered in and drawn out from a single location in cyberspace. How had I lost that sense of appreciation? When did I stop marveling at the wonder of technological efficiency and start grumbling about how slow and inadequate these tools are in living up to my need for data?
I suppose the answer lies in our collective expectations about technological tools. Given the astounding advancements in computing capabilities that most of us in higher education administration have experienced over the past few decades, we assume that our computers will continue to gain speed and capacity as we create the need for ever-more elaborate data presentations. We expect quick and reliable answers to endless questions posed by those from inside as well as outside the College. And I think we have grown to rely on these tools as extensions of ourselves, of our own capabilities: any struggles with technology may be perceived as a weakness in administrative abilities.
In a final exhalation, I reminded myself that administrators only one generation before me had managed to oversee admissions processes and track student enrollment without the aid of any computers. Indeed, that is undoubtedly still the case in many places in the world. I chuckled as a memorable image from a recent trip to India came to mind.
While taking an unofficial walking tour of the University of Rajasthan, our guide, Acharya, led us through a central administrative building. In office after office, we saw enormous stacks of paper. There were stacks on shelves and stacks on desks; there were stacks inside cabinets; there were whole rooms that appeared to be devoted to storing stacks of paper. As a fairly recent college graduate, Acharya explained that if he requested his records, a clerk would have to manually search through stacks of papers like these. It might take months to get a single copy of a required document. His explanation revealed no sense of frustration or outrage, just calm acceptance.
So I put a copy of that photograph on my desk, next to my coffee mug. When the rainbow wheel next appears on my computer screen, I intend to recalibrate my response. I will imagine that someone is moving from one office to another, combing through innumerable stacks of paper, and assembling an astonishing array of data for my use. I will remember that others perform similar tasks with much less powerful tools. I will be grateful for the remarkable technology that allows me to complete complex tasks on a daily basis.
And I will graciously accept the gift of a multicolored reminder to simply breathe while I wait.
Six years ago I found myself packing one bag and moving from North Carolina to California to experience the life of the west. I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina. As I began to search for careers, I quickly realized that I needed more experience and education to pursue my passion of working with children, aged birth-3 years, and their families. I had always had an interest for the developing brain and its fascinating ability to rewire itself based on environmental input. In my undergraduate studies, I had had the opportunity to intern in a hospital with a developmental specialist in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit,(NICU), follow-up clinic, helping the specialist conduct developmental assessments on premature infants post-NICU through age 3. I knew then, the hospital population, particularly the premature population, was my passion.
After years of searching and narrowing my focus of study for graduate school, I came into contact with Dr. Kathleen Vandenberg, the west coast Master Trainer of the NIDCAP (Neonatal Individualized Developmental Care Assessment Program http://www.nidcap.org/). During a 2-hour conversation with her, a light bulb went off and I knew I had tapped into something that would change the course of my life. I once again packed my bags, moved to San Francisco, and began a Master’s program in Early Childhood Special Education at Mills, while simultaneously interning at UCSF Medical Center with Dr. Vandenberg . However, in between my 1st year of grad school and 2nd, the 14 year old west coast NIDCAP program was cut due to lack of funding. But luckily, another door opened up for me, allowing me to intern at Oakland Children’s hospital with a NIDCAP trainer as well. There, I learned developmental interventions along with infant massage techniques to help foster a better developmental outcome for these fragile infants despite the unnatural environmental surroundings of a NICU.
Although my journey began with a narrow focus for the premature population, Mills’ graduate program quickly expanded my knowledge immensely, and gave me opportunities to work with all types of children and families including both those with special needs and those with typically developing children. Mills taught me to look at the child as a whole and meet the family where they are emotionally. Professionally, I am now seeing how the information I attained at Mills through the Children’s School, lectures, and field experiences have prepared me, and my classmates, to be leaders in our field. We learned to manage almost any situation, and to know quickly how to respond sensitively to the family’s needs in that moment. Mills taught us to see the big picture, the whole child, and how every factor –financial burdens, parental stress, behavior concerns, speech delays– of that child’s life is important to consider when working with the family. Mills taught us to see the whole picture and how to support the whole family through the journey.
I have learned more than I could have ever anticipated from this graduate program. The rich amount of hands-on, reflective practice that Mills provided is something that you cannot get anywhere else. I don’t think students realize the richness of the program until they begin their career. You may feel engulfed with so much work that you don’t realize the implication of that 25th reflection paper until you step into the work force. Then you realize that reflection of practice is the gateway to confidence and leadership in any profession.
Currently, I am a Developmental Specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in Oceanside, CA. I provide developmental assessments for children from birth to age 5. I also provide one-on-one consults with parents and children, providing educational play opportunities and information on how to stimulate language/development at home. I teach infant massage classes to families at the hospital and to mothers attending a substance abuse recovery center that are being reunited with their infants. I recently had the opportunity to speak at a local Early Childhood Mental Health Conference in San Diego, CA about the “Fussy Baby,” where I presented NIDCAP’s philosophies on helping the infant self-regulate. In addition, I am currently mentoring undergraduate interns. Following your passion pays off in the end. I credit Mills for where I am today, and will forever be thankful for all the experiences it gave me. It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth every lost hour of sleep.
I came to the San Francisco Bay Area to further my education and discovered my passion for working with children and families. After graduating from San Francisco State University with a BA in Child and Adolescent Development, I worked as a full-time Infant/Toddler teacher. I enjoyed my work but wanted to pursue something more and find another way to serve the families in my community. Through volunteering at UCSF’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, I discovered a field called Child Life. The child life philosophy emphasizes play as an integral aspect of decreasing the stress that comes with hospitalization. Child Life was perfect for me because of my degree in Early Childhood Education and interest in science and medicine. Studying Child life and Early Childhood Special Education at Mills College has been a rewarding experience for me. This past summer I was fortunate to intern in the child life program at Kaiser Permanente Oakland. This internship was intense, but an important part of my journey to become a child life specialist. I was constantly reminded me of why I love the child life philosophy.
During my last summer as a graduate student I balanced being a live-in-nanny while interning full time at Kaiser Oakland. On a daily basis I met children and teenagers who were admitted for anything from swallowing a foreign object to scheduled chemotherapy. I ended most of my days by picking up from school two of the children I cared for. I then took them home and sometimes cooking dinner for the family. Many times I told myself that balancing a lot is great practice for the real world. Though stressful, it felt good being busy and always on the move. That being said, throughout my internship I often strangely felt that I was not doing enough. I had many moments when I felt joy in knowing that I had made a child laugh or smile or was able to give them something that would at least briefly take their mind off of their pain or illness. However I also had moments when I did not want to be that other person that a child felt that they had to interact with while dealing with the trauma and stress of hospitalization.
All this time caring for others often caused me to lose track of caring for myself. I balanced the stress by marathon training and distance running with friends as a way to do something completely selfish yet physically and mentally beneficial. In order to keep running as a way to decrease my stress, I had to balance my time being active while still having time to read and write reflective journals for my internship. This was difficult. These journals allowed me to write down my thoughts, address biases I did not know I had, while absorbing and questioning the new knowledge I was gaining. Reflecting on paper and reflecting while running really caused me to face the choices I was making in life and reflect if I wanted to follow the path I was on. The reflection could be scary because I questioned my worth and wondered if I was making a difference in my community. I also questioned if the time I was putting in was making me selfish –I took out more money to pay for my education while my parents struggled financially. Of course, my parents are my #1 fans and completely support my academic pursuits, but as I struggled to provide for myself, I hated not being able to give them financial support. They are the reason I am here and the reason for the path I chose.
One day I hope to be in a position that would allow me to practice the child life profession in Africa. My roots are in Africa, as are many of my family members. With the high childhood mortality rates in parts of Africa, I see child life as a great profession needed. I know I still have a long way to go but I feel that having a goal or multiple goals are worth the time and energy. Just like marathon training, you get out what you put in.