What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

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.

education_story_graphic

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.