What's your education story?

‘I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe.’ How one teacher found his voice in the Statehouse

PHOTO: Provided by Patrick McAlister

Dozens of educators gathered recently to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teach for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Patrick McAlister is the director of policy for Teach Plus Indianapolis, an organization that trains teachers to be policy advocates. He previously taught middle and high school English at Indiana Math and Science Academy-North, an Indianapolis charter school. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I’d been teaching for a couple of years in my four walls by myself a lot of times. I was teaching middle school — you know the chaos. And I was trying to do my best.

A friend approached me and said, “I need you to talk with a legislator.” They were about ready to vote on something that I cared about (whether to leave the Common Core State Standards). And he’s like, “I need you to come speak.”

I thought, “Why me?” My energy, my life goes into this classroom to do what I can, and I don’t have anything to say to this guy.

He gave me some talking points, and he said, “Study those, and we will go in, and we will meet with the guy, and everything will be OK.”

We go to the Indiana General Assembly and meet with a state representative. I go into this guy’s cubicle and sit down. He’s not there yet. And on one wall, he has a bunch of Austrian economists, like (Friedrich) Hayek and all those guys. And on the other wall, he has all of the Founding Fathers, and then his picture in the middle. This was the guy that I was supposed to convince to vote the way I wanted him to.

It gets worse. He comes in, and he sweeps his coat back and sits down. And on his belt — this is in the Statehouse, by the way — on his belt is the biggest handgun I have ever seen in my entire life. Like, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, I would be standing behind that guy.

I’m positive this meeting isn’t going to go anywhere. So he comes in, sits back in his chair, spreads his legs, and he is like, “Alright, what have you got?” And so, in my head, my initial thinking was, I’m just going to read the talking points. But I have a choice to make, do I spend my time just regurgitating things … or do I talk to him about kids and my classroom.

I started talking about this lesson I taught with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I talked about how, we didn’t just read the novel, we looked at these images of the time that’s covered in the novel, we listened to blues and we listened to Billie Holiday. And he started nodding his head, and I talked about the other primary source documents that we read, the letters that we read.

(He) ended the conversation asking me questions, looking me in the eyes and hearing what I had to say. Now, at the end, he didn’t actually vote the way I wanted him to — he was afraid that the federal government was coming to take over this issue and couldn’t get past that in his head in order to support what I was trying to get him to support.

But he said, at the committee hearing where he was going to vote, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, and I’m not going to to support it. But I talked to a teacher and this teacher made me think.”

I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe. I was one pebble, one person. … After I heard that, I realized, what would it be like if he had 10 pebbles in his shoe? What if his whole shoe was full of pebbles, and he couldn’t stick his foot in there. He’d have to do something different. That’s why I believe teacher advocacy is important when it comes to policy.

What's your education story?

This educator sees ‘the power in being bilingual’ — and she wants her students to see it, too

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school housed at IPS Riverside School 44. She is part of the first round of local fellows selected to participate in a principal training program run by Relay Graduate School of Education.

I’ve been an educator now for 20 years. I was born in Cuba, and that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. After that, I moved to Africa. My mom is a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist, and she was sent there for two years. I saw the opportunity to teach in a different place. I met my husband there, and we were married in Cape Verde, and I taught there for six years.

In a poor country like Cape Verde it was really hard for me to continue my studies because there wasn’t a university. So I started looking outside the country, and I was really fortunate to find a university in Vermont where part of their goal is to find international students who wanted to study there and were able to bring that cultural awareness to the rest of of the school.

It was an incredible experience because it was so diverse and you were able to work with people from all over the world. After that, I started looking for a (job). A school in Oregon was looking forof bilingual teachers … and that’s how I got involved in dual language, and it’s been my passion forever.

I see the power in being bilingual, and I want students to recognize you are very powerful when you can speak, write and read correctly in two languages — it’s an advantage for you.

That led me to find Mariama (Carson) by accident. We went to a conference, and I met her. She talked about this project (Global Prep Academy), and it was very interesting. Well, you know how it happens at a conference, you meet people, you say goodbye to people.

I went back to Oregon and forgot about it, and it was kind of … meant to be. I came back to a second conference, and the first person I saw was her. The last day of the conference, I called her, we sat down and talked.

So I came with my family (to Indianapolis). I really loved that the project was in the beginning because it was an opportunity to start something from the beginning. I never saw a new (dual language program) from the ground up.

One of the things that really caught my attention is how different urban education is. The real challenge started when I met the kids. They are so smart, all of them, but they come with so much baggage. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of commitment — believing that they can do it.

I would like to be more in an administrator role, with more administrator responsibilities in that sense because I see the need we have in the school. We have great teachers, but we have teachers who need to be switching their minds around to meet the needs of the kids.

I see education as the greatest equalizer for any student. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but if you have an education, you can achieve.

I don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of experience, but I still need to continue learning and growing as an educator. I see myself in 20 years continuing in this career path, but with more experience so that the people that I work with can reach whatever they want to reach — not just the students, but also the educators.

 

What's your education story?

This IPS teacher was afraid to ask for help, but the courage it took was worth it. Her mentor made all the difference.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at IPS School 14.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Melissa Scherle is a second-grade teacher at Washington Irving School 14 in Indianapolis Public Schools. She’s been an educator for 13 years.

I grew up in southern Indiana, and I moved to Indianapolis for my teaching job (at School 14).

That first year, in October, I can remember just kind of wondering what in the world was I doing because I was raised in southern Indiana.

I thought, “What am I doing?” because I’m really having difficulty relating to these students.

It took courage to ask a veteran teacher for help. And she was top-notch, high quality, and I was intimidated by her, but when I went to her, she had an open heart she was kind and caring. She mentored me and took me under her wing, and and taught me so much that I could never repay her. How to connect with the kids, how to connect with the community and the parents.

My first year teaching, I wish I would’ve had a longer student teaching experience, not just the last semester of senior year. Education has changed so much over 13 years. You’re having kids come in with more intense needs.

Before you can teach, you need to have classroom management, but before you get classroom management, you also need to get to know your kids. Know each and every kid. What ticks and tocks with them, what their strengths are and what maybe they need extra help with. Treat every student as an individual, but they’re all equal as well.

I tell people, you don’t really learn anything in college until you step into that classroom. There’s still stuff that goes on every day that I’m like, did that just happen in my classroom?

I just see so much of the policy and laws affecting classroom teachers, and I feel like teachers need a voice and that teachers need to be able to relay their experiences when they want to have a voice. There are great things going on in the law, but there are also other things that need to be fixed and changed.

I’ve been in a classroom for 13 years and have just seen so many different people come in and out of the building and just having friends leaving education. A lot of colleagues have said, “You know, if I would’ve had more experience in a classroom, or if I would’ve known this in my program, I wouldn’t have left education.” And we see a lot of first- and second-year teachers leave, and a lot of them are just overwhelmed.

They wish they could’ve had more field experience in the classroom or more mentoring. If we can work with districts and policymakers all working together, we can keep teachers in the classroom and have teachers providing quality instruction for the kids as well.