Ada, Public Education Partner, CA
Ada was a middle school math/science teacher and has her Master's in Education from Stanford University. She works to bridge research and practice in public education. She is a RE-ENVISIONED Catalyst and was interviewed by her Mentor Catalyst, Erin.
Think about one child in your life that you care about and tell me a bit about them.
My goddaughter, Vanessa, is 20 now, but I’ve known her since she was born. For her, rather than the religious role of a godmother, I’ve been trying to play more of an educational guide. She is fairly quiet, but you can tell she is excited to learn more. She is a curious person. She’s always been attentive with school, and has cared about pursuing higher education.
When you think about Vanessa out of school and grown up, maybe in her thirties, what is it you want for her? What would be a good life?
I would want her to feel like she was able to pursue whatever she had hoped to. I hope she will feel like she had the ability and access to try anything, whether or not she was successful at it, but to try and discover. And then ultimately in her thirties (which is still fairly young), I’m hoping that she’s already on her professional path of passion. Maybe not a specific role, but a field that she is excited about. And she’s teaching me about whatever it is that she’s doing. That’s what I would hope for her.
What about beyond career?
It’s hard for me to think beyond career, because for me a career is what builds a stable financial foundation to be able to do whatever is beyond career. So we both (Vanessa and I) come from parents that are farmworkers. Her dad is still working in the fields, and lives on the property where they work. So if you have financial stability then you can do whatever it is beyond that. Like have a family. Or having the the social support network that she’s happy with.
I also hope she laughs a lot. And is able to access and travel to whatever places she’s interested in, and doesn’t feel constrained by financial choices, as she already has. That’s one of the biggest things that she was facing when selecting colleges that I was trying to gear her away from. So for me, the rest of it, it will come if she feels financially stable.
So when you think about her in an ideal life, what is the role of school in getting her there?
The role of school would be providing her with a skillset, and a mindset, to access knowledge and be able to leverage that knowledge to create the type of society she believes we should have. It’s not necessarily what we both want, but whatever she envisions wanting for her children, and being a critical participant in our political democracy, our capitalist society and economy. And to be able to have discussions in her home that also invoke a sense of curiosity.
Discussions about what?
Anything. That’s what I do with my family, so I’m thinking about that. My brother teaches me about how space works because I didn’t choose that as a field. It’s so hard to think of our life in the scale of eternity, where we think it starts and the theory behind that. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my career, but I find it really interesting to think about. And I know now that where my brother is (and he’s 36), he doesn’t necessarily have access to those types of conversations in his social circle. So I would hope that she would have access to that and/or promote those types of conversations as well.
So you said that you would like her to have the skillset and mindset to create the society that she would like to see. Being a critical participant in our political democracy. And also be curious and able to have intellectual conversations with friends about a various number of topics that don’t necessarily connect with her career. It’s interesting because it kind of answers that “beyond career” piece that you were struggling with earlier.
I guess that’s because it’s so intertwined for me—
Participating in a democracy and career. And so, I’m trying to separate the two given that—I’m in education and it is a public good right now. It is a government agency, and we’re participating in the education of political minds.
But I think of her, and she’s interested in doing nursing right now. So, if she goes down that path, I guess I would still expect her to be politically involved. Like have a stance on certain Props. I realize as I am reflecting with you that that is something I hope she cares about—having a sense of agency to move what things are going to be prioritized in our states and our counties and nation. Rather than the mindset of well, what does it matter? I’m not gonna vote anyways. That’s just depressing. Which is why I would rather have the alternative, and hope that she doesn’t feel apathy, or a sense that her voice doesn’t matter. But that her voice does matter.
And connecting back to the career being important, I hope she doesn’t feel like she’s so resource strained that she doesn’t have the time or mental energy to devote to being in the political process. Or even in her own organizational processes. Like as an employee to an employer.
Do you think schools will play the role that they should for her? Have they?
She went to Sacramento State, and I think that she could’ve gone to UC Davis. She wanted to go farther away but was limited through family and money reasons. She’s the first daughter to leave, and the older brother went nearby which sort of limited her. And I thought originally that schools could have—I felt bad for not having been there. I could’ve played that role as counselor and explain why certain choices were better than others.
I think that I could’ve played that High School counselor role and gone to the home. But actually as a family member. So in lieu of that, I wish there had been a more involved college counselor. But then I realize that we’re asking schools for everything, so I could’ve done that.But I think that the K-12 program seems to have set her up for college access. I don’t know about success…I don’t know the program that she went through super well. I think that where I am more nervous, is her Higher Ed experience.
Right now, she can’t get access to any of the classes that she needs to become a nurse. That happens to everyone who is at a state or community college. And it’s super frustrating. So I was trying to most recently to find places that she could transfer to that would give her more access. Post-bach options. Which is frustrating because she doesn’t necessarily want more school. She wants to finish in four years. So all of these things that she is capable of, the system itself is not letting her access. It’s not providing her with the very thing it is supposed to provide.
With regard to political processes, I got that through student groups. I’m not sure if that’s something she even has time to think about, or has been involved in at the State college. I think for her, her priority is financial stability, and that’s going to be it. And it’s frustrating that she can’t get the access at a basic level to the classes that she needs.
So you mentioned that you’re not sure about the quality of the content or the quality of the learning she had for K-1?
Yeah, I don’t know. From the quality of conversations I’ve had with her, it seems like her work was rigorous enough to have set her up for the content in college. There’s certain differences like the pace, or level of reading, that she may have run up against, but there doesn’t seem to have been as much of it as I had experienced. Which I think is why I have noticed it. I think I was surprised by how okay she was her first year of college.
Do you think schools will do what you want them to do for all children?
Will or can? I think can is a more interesting question.
It’s so hard to answer. And I felt like this as a teacher, because I feel like I’m close to that vision. In some ways, I’m a success. So I can’t give you the realities of someone who may have fallen under the demographics of not being able to reach their potential. In terms of what’s not working. Because I made it work, if anything.
That’s what’s kind of frustrating about myself. I’m like this is how it is. So I’m gonna make it work. I want this. I don’t really care how I have to do it. I’m just gonna do it. Which is why the end goal is so important for me. I need to know exactly what it is that I’m reaching. Because I’m going to get there. If I don’t know, then that’s scary. Or, then nothing is going to happen. But a lot of people, even if they have an end goal, they get lost in the process. It’s hard to get through it.
So I think, in terms of schools being able to provide all of that (the ability for students to reason and access their passion) I think that they can. Something that I have noticed that is difficult because of capacity, that I think could help with the opportunity gap, is that schools can build honest and strong partnerships with the family. That’s super vague. And I know it’s difficult, and everyone does it differently. But the reason I say that is because it allows you to get closer to who that person is. And figure out how they are, and how they approach anything. Then (if you have the teaching skills, which is another thing—getting access to quality teachers), you can provide some sort of scaffolds or learning opportunities that are exciting.
So schools can do that. Are they?
It depends on what school you’re looking at. I think in general, they vary. I think not for all students. There are certain demographics for whom we do this more than others. And I think it’s because we know those families more. And because it means we have to agree on something that is a harsh reality. That racism, or colorism exists. And it plays out in ways that we’re not always aware of. And in some ways that are more explicit. It’s hard to face. Even just admitting to you now that this is true, on record, is difficult because it’s so hard to change. If people are saying that they don’t want to be racist, and yet we are. That’s a reality, and there’s ways in which we’ve pinpointed how that plays out in schools, and there’s ways that we haven’t. And that gray area, or ambiguous area, or invisible area, is what I can’t articulate. It’s like yes they can, but…and I can’t even tell you what the answer is. Because we don’t know, or we don’t want to have those conversations, or we don’t know how to have those conversations without feeling attacked. Or feeling accused. Or something insensitive happens, and we don’t know how to manage those instances or statements.
But going back to what can schools do, I think that if you can have those strong relationships with families, and see them not as the color of their skin, but more as a human, you can better support that student. But I don’t know if that’s the answer. I think that’s my naïve version of the answer. And I’m still figuring it out.
One of things I’m grappling with, is that with the career goal of schooling…what if there isn’t decent work for everybody? What if school gets everyone through prepared but then those jobs aren’t there? So, when we make work the outcome, I worry about it…
I think, my perspective is shaped by seeing the effects that working in the fields does to the body. And just how difficult it is, generally. And being the daughter of immigrants, as well, is another story. I remember something my dad told me. We’re so important to society, and yet we’re not treated as important. I mean, they are providing the food for the entire nation to eat, and yet they’re not provided with any other rights. Farmworkers aren’t even provided with the same employment securities as any other low-wage labor, because of the way farmers have been able to voice their opinions, and the way that immigrants are viewed in society—as “taking our jobs,” etc.
So given that economic reality growing up, I think pretending that education is not for a more economically secure future is silly. If I’m not providing a more stable environment, or being able to be deemed as someone important to listen to, then what’s the purpose? So the way that I see it from my perspective, because of the way that I grew up, I’m pursuing education so that I can have a sense of supporting my family, so that I’m not struggling, and my life expectancy is longer.
But I would think for my children, it would be a different story. If I have children, which I probably will, they’re going to be able to do whatever they want to do. They can pursue things that aren’t financially stable, and I’m going to be okay supporting them through that. And everything’s going to be fine and dandy. If they feel like they want to take a break for a summer, or a year, as some people do, and travel the world as they can, then I would probably support that. They’re going to be a part of a generation that I’m not a part of.
So for them, schooling is going to take on a different notion. Of course they’re going to want to provide for their own families, but their journey getting there might take longer. And that’s going to be okay, because I’m going to be their financial stability. So they can experiment with becoming an artist, for example. It’s going be fine.
As opposed to having to deal with their own finances, and their family finances. Thankfully, I have a family that is fairly stable—I don’t have to help with rent or whatever—but I have a lot of friends who do. It’s a different reality that my children are going to have. So, for their schooling, I think of a place that nurtures whatever it is as you as a kid cares about. So it actually ends up being the same. The end goal is a little different, the person might just prioritize something differently. I’m focusing on college with Vanessa, but for my kids that after K-12 experience might be different. I’m not going to freak out if my kid doesn’t go to college (probably), or takes on a different path. Because I know they’re going to figure it out and going to be okay.
Do you think people agree with you on these different levels?
I.e. What a good life is? What the role of school is in getting there? Whether school is doing that for all children? And if not, why not?
I don’t think so. I think everyone has different priorities. What I’ve learned—and it’s really hard—is that everyone is going to have a different opinion. Sometimes you realize you might be using different words, but it’s actually the same thing. Or these are underneath the same bucket. But I think there’s going to be a diversity in interests, means, wants. We’re going to have people that want an art infused program, versus an engineering infused program. Or vis versa. And that’s okay. That shouldn’t mean that there’s inequitable structures associated with that. But in the way that status has been doled out, and economic access, sometimes it is.
Do you think people agree with you on what a good life is?
I don’t know. I’m curious. That’s why I’m interested in this project. I’d think probably not that different, but then again I’m always surprised by the diversity. Thankfully we are all different. And how schools respond to that depends. I’ve seen totally fine and different models in the district that I’m working in now. But I think there is still this base model that you start off with. You have thirty kids in a class with one teacher. That hasn’t moved a lot. A lot of that is because of funding. And norms. But what if? We all know that less students to an adult increases achievement. Or it can. They’re going to get more supports if you have five students to one credentialed adult. And so I had this thought when I was funding all these external resources—what if we just have five kids to one adult and spend all our money on that? Yes, that’s expensive, but if that’s going to achieve our results, and that’s what we care about—whatever we’re saying those results are—then let’s just do it.
I think we haven’t had space to disrupt that one notion. Yes, charter schools exist, and yet that notion is still there.
What has been an empowering learning experience you've had, in or out of school?
One thing that I keep on thinking back to as I’m having this conversation is that I took this course as an undergrad at Stanford with the Bing nursery school. And when I think about pursuing your own passions, that’s how the nursery school is set up. There are options, a very well-prepared adult in each option to facilitate the use of that option, but the kids don’t have to stay at that option for a set amount of time. They come and go as they choose. And at the end of the day, because of the great facilitators that the teachers are, and at the end of the week, there is a sense of progress that has been shown. That’s what surprised me. They were able to capture, what may seem like a too free-moving environment, to show that these are the students who participated in story-telling today, and here are their stories for the day. Or understand that the student was one day working with the water area more than the other, and being very in tune with the students’ likes and dislikes, in the context of their growth.
So now, I’m thinking about how cool that was. And about the adults—what sort of preparation did they go through? Where did they come from? What schools of education did they attend? Because I think setting up those environments, a lot of thought went into them. And I only got a small snapshot talking to those teachers, but you can tell that the kids were happy. Or living life. Happy or not—because maybe they got into a heated discussion that day, which actually happened. But regardless, they were living life, and no one was putting up walls for them not to. Or putting up enablers.
Did you ever have an experience yourself that felt like that?
There’s two things that come to mind. One, because my school was so small, and I was an active learner in the working system (whether I actually agree with what was done), my voice was heard. In the sense that I felt like I was actively participating, and I sought joy by getting things quickly so that I could engage in conversation with my classmates. The teachers allowed me to, they didn’t say stop talking. They saw that I was helping them. And I enjoyed math the most, so I would teach the other kids, and I enjoyed doing that a lot. I enjoyed being able to figure things out and then helping my classmates, which usually leads to a deeper sense of learning and better questions. I was allowed to do that because my classes were tiny. Like my calculus class there were only four or five of us. We had a calculus class, thank god.
But then, I realized as I was starting to teach, I probably would not have allowed for the space for that. For a student to have been like myself. So that was an interesting thought in hindsight. What was I doing that wasn’t reflective of my own experience. But as a result, because I was given that freedom in school, it made me feel like I was living life.
Another empowering experience came from my involvement with Upward Bound. In the summer we would take community college courses, and we got to choose whichever courses we’d like (or the limited ones that they would let high school students take). And I took a course that was a lot of fun that I didn’t have access to in my regular schooling, which was Mexican American History—Chicano Studies ultimately. And when I think of the ethnic studies impact here, it totally makes sense to me. And the stereotype threat. And guess when it happened? The summer of my ninth grade. A very important time. I was lucky enough to have chosen it, and that it was offered that summer. I enjoyed the professor, and we also received tutoring, which was helpful because I didn’t know how to write a college-level essay. It illuminated a lot about society and life, and lived experiences. So that was another important moment for me.