Ally, Education Policy Graduate Student, WI
Ally is a bilingual teacher from Wisconsin who is taking a year off from teaching to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University. She spends her time studying, running, and learning languages. She was interviewed by her friend Tye.
I want you to take a moment and think about a child that you care about, and when you're ready tell me about that child.
Okay, I'm thinking of one of my student's from my first year of teaching in Houston. His name was Alejandro. He had immigrated across the border by himself one year before I met him. His parents had crossed when he was a few months old and had left him with his grandparents, then they paid someone to take him part of the way, and then he crossed by himself and met up with them. He was a year older than the rest of his classmates and very intelligent, but he really struggled because he was still trying to learn English since had only been there for a year. He was very resilient and very perseverant.
When you think about what kind of unique contribution he makes to the world, what do you think about?
I think he really showed my other students resilience and true compassion, he really was not negative about the experiences he had. He was very positive and compassionate about why his parents had to make that decision. His siblings went with his parents and so he was working on building relationships with them and harbored no negative feelings towards them. He very much was just looking towards the future and was going to be the best version he could be; I think he was very inspirational for the other students in my class as well.
I want you to imagine that he is in his 30s now, so he is out of school and he is starting his adult life, so what do you hope for him about his life? What would make it a good or successful life?
He would talk a lot about how he needed to get an education and become a citizen of the United States so he could eventually help his parents and his siblings become citizens of the United States. He talked a lot about how he needed to work really really hard to make that happen, so I think that for him to be living a happy life would mean being able to provide for himself and for his family. Also, to be able to bridge the gap between how much his culture from Mexico meant to him, how much his family from there meant to him, while also learning to speak English and interact in our society here in the US. So really being able to bridge that gap of where he was from and where he wanted to go. I think he would probably be most fulfilled if he had a challenging job, so it wasn't just showing up and picking up a paycheck but something that pushed him to be creative because he was very intelligent.
I think that for him to be living a happy life would mean being able to provide for himself and for his family. Also, to be able to bridge the gap between how much his culture from Mexico meant to him, how much his family from there meant to him, while also learning to speak English and interact in our society here in the US. So really being able to bridge that gap of where he was from and where he wanted to go.
What do you worry about that might get in the way of him achieving a good life like that?
I think that there were a lot of assumptions that were made by his teachers in the year before he was in my 4th grade class, and I think that were probably going to continue to be assumptions made about him. Even though he was very smart and probably gifted and talented, he really struggled with speaking English so there was an assumption that he wasn't intelligent. I worry that after that year he will start being put in remedial classes, tracked to do a job that wasn't really going to push him in the future and ultimately- would he be able to graduate? I just think it's very easy for students who are tracked to lose hope or lose their excitement about school and lose that determination. That's what I would worry about.
What role do schools play for him in achieving a good life or not, what else do you see as the role of schools for a child like him?
I think the school district he was in was very much focusing on assimilating students- to make them like their white classmates. I think for him it was always going to be really important to maintain those roots to Mexico and to the language and culture and and I worry that he was either going to have to find a way to completely assimilate and adapt in order to be tracked and that would mean he would give up his culture, or he was going to keep hold of his culture and not find success. So I think ideally a school would be able to help him to maintain both sides of that and help him maneuver through the system while still being himself, which I think is really hard to do.
When you talk about culture what do you think is the value of culture in schooling or being culturally sensitive in schools?
His experiences were not often reflected in things that we talked about in school, for example in 4th grade we talked a lot about the problems between Texas and Mexico in the past. That was one of our big focuses throughout the year. They would portray Mexico as the bad guy, and against the republic and here he is coming from Mexico trying to figure this out. I remember him asking, "Wait so the bad guys were in Mexico?”. Really it's just a perspective from a text book written by white people. I think there can be a lot of confusion if they can't also see themselves in what they are learning.
What do you think the role of schools should be more generally?
It's really hard to say, but I think that if we can focus more on developing a system that can support individuals instead of developing individuals to fit into a system. I think that every child brings their own strengths, their own weaknesses to the table and I think we need to figure out as teachers how to adapt and bring out the uniqueness in them in order for them to ultimately be successful, to find their own version of happiness instead of us prescribing what their happiness will look like.
I think that every child brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table, and I think we need to figure out as teachers how to adapt and bring out the uniqueness in them in order for them to ultimately be successful
Do you think people agree with you on the different roles that schools should play? Do you think that people agree with you on what happiness is? Or what a good life is?
I think a lot of times we are kind of told that happiness is very monetary based, so if you're a doctor or a lawyer you're going to be happier, and you should just keep pursuing and pursuing those goals- but from what I've seen that’s not always the case. Just because you have the highest paying job does not mean that you are personally fulfilled or are using your strengths in a way that is fulfilling. I think people don't agree on face value, they might think “My son or daughter needs to be the CEO of a company to be happy” but I think it's more important to look at the relationships that exist, who they are, and how that fits into their career more than how much they’re making.
Can you tell me about your favorite teacher when you were in school?
Probably Mr. Sins, when I was junior and senior he was one of my English teachers for various classes. I just remember him being very quirky and just super excited about what he was teaching and he had this huge vocabulary. He would kind of joke around about how big his vocabulary was and play jokes on us with his big words. He was just so excited to be there. I still run into him every once in a while, back home, and he's just so passionate about teaching, it's very fun. It made you want to learn, I remember even the kids that didn't usually want to be there were pretty excited to be in his class.
Is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have? Is there anything that you've been thinking about recently related to schooling that you wish you would have talked about? Or want included here?
The only thing that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about is just how we align the ideas of equity with the idea that everyone wants to get their kid ahead. I think even as someone who has espoused the idea of "One day all kids will achieve a great education" I look back on my experiences teaching and having other kids in my life and I was the teacher that was pushing them out of the system and into charter schools. So even though I'm here saying I want everyone to be equal, you create a bond with a kid and then you want the best for them, and you don't even realize you're fighting against what you're actually saying about wanting things to be equal. I think that's a big question, how do we align those two goals?
If you had to choose one thing to intervene on to make schools more like your ideal what would it be?
I think one of the things I would change is this big idea of "teacher proofing" the system. There's all these box curriculums and when that one doesn't work you get a new curriculum and a new boxed up set of information you're supposed to give to kids. I think I've been really fortunate to work in 3 different school where I've gotten to design my own curriculum. Granted, this takes work and takes thought, but I think I've been able to adapt to what they specifically need and what their strengths are or what they need to work on. It allows me to be more creative and have fun with learning. Sometimes I look at other teachers who are talking about these curriculums that seem like a dream because you can just get it out, but the kids end up doing rote things and learning things that don't apply to what’s going to make them happy. I think that's really key, allowing students to learn about their interests and what they want to do in the future. So it's very hard and it's a lot of work but I think I would try to figure out a way to get rid of all those box curriculums.