Marisa, School Director, CA
Marisa is the Lower School Director at an independent school specializing in teaching children with language based learning differences. Prior to being the Director she taught for seven years, including two years on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. She was interviewed by her friend, Erin.
Tell me about a kid in your life who you care about and what you want for them for their adult lives.
I’ve had hundreds of students over the years so it’s hard to pick just one!
One of the first who comes to mind is a kid named Leo. He was a student of mine on the reservation. He was in the special ed program and we were very close. He had a great sense of humor. He used to tease me and call me curse words in Navajo and everyone would kind of gasp and I was like “okay, I know what you said…can we move on with the lesson now?”. Which gained me some respect in the classroom. He was the kind of kid who could get away with things like that because he was pushing boundaries but in a funny, not-malicious way. We had a good rapport and had a lot of fun together. Leo struggled in school but he had such a good personality about it. We’re Facebook friends now – he was a 7th grader when I first started working with him and he’s 22 now. We're not really in touch but I love knowing he’s a welder and has a career. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him.
What do you mean you weren't sure what was going to happen with him?
I didn’t know what was going to happen with him because he struggled with school so much and I don’t think he lacked motivation but he appeared to lack motivation. Really he just lacked some of the skills he needed and tried to use his charm to get around things. The thing about the reservation is that very few people have options if you stay around. He left the reservation and went to school but you never know. Many kids just kind of stay there on the reservation and find things to do but there’s almost no work. If you can go to college then you go to college, but you’re probably not going to come back to the reservation. Or you join the military - and he wasn’t the kind of kid who could handle joining the military. So, I didn’t know what would become of him. I’m really glad he found a career that works for him.
So, what do you want for him for his life?
Ultimately I want him to be happy and to see himself as worthy and be proud of who he is. I'd especially like him to be proud of his heritage because off of the reservation he’s going to face a lot of criticism and racism, especially in Arizona. A lot of people resent Native Americans, they think they get handouts and special treatment, but those people have mostly never been on the reservation and seen that it really is like a third world country in some ways. So I want him to be proud and happy that he’s found a trade and is working and providing for himself. I would imagine he’s also actually providing for some of his family too. He’s struggled and he’s really done something with his life, which I hope he's proud of.
Also, now being a Facebook friend, I get to see the girlfriend drama. He’s been heartbroken from a recent breakup of late. I want him to find someone who really appreciates him. One of his gifts is making relationships – being kind and funny - and I’d like him to find a partner who appreciates that about him.
What do you think the role is of school in getting him to what you want for him?
In the district we were in there was such a focus on standardized testing. There was a goal in Arizona that by 2016 everyone was going to be reading on grade level. That wasn’t an option for Leo - to be reading on grade level. They shut down our school for a week to do aims bootcamp – really drilling the kids on all of the information so they would do as well as possible on the standardized tests. For these kids that sends a message that you have to be good at these academic tasks, which takes away from the validity of going into a trade - which, by the way, the majority of the kids in that school are going to do. They did have an auto shop at the school that was sometimes open and sometimes not open.
I feel like schools have an obligation to look at children as whole people and their strengths and say, “sure you can pursue white collar jobs, or you can pursue a trade, and both are valued.” And it’s not like “oh, I wasn’t smart enough to go to college" or, "I was too poor to go to college.” No, that’s a choice and that’s a valuable and honorable choice because you’re good at that trade and society needs you to do it.
Can you say more about what school was contributing and what you wish it was contributing?
I feel like schools often makes kids feel like they have to fit into this box. Everyone has to do these things in a certain way – it's the industrial model. It specifies that "this" is what success looks like. It’s this high bar of society that you’re only considered successful if you go to college and get a job and make a lot of money. I feel like kids were being put into this model, which doesn’t fit with the culture of the reservation or with being Navajo, but because we were a public school we were forced to try and fit these kids into this mold that wasn’t appropriate and wasn’t culturally relevant. It was also damaging the culture because we were trying to make these kids Westernized when, honestly, they were doing fine before the white people came in and tried to force them to be something they’re not.
So that’s what I feel like the schools did. As much as teachers tried to push away from that, the greater culture of Arizona and the country wanted the students to be something else. Even including their language – Leo could speak Navajo, I don’t remember how proficient he was in it, but it meant he was labeled as ELL. He knew a language that existed before English came to America! So labeling him as ELL is also saying his language isn’t good enough and he has to fit into this box again.
My hope would be, more globally in education, and for Leo, that we celebrate kids differences and their strengths and their backgrounds. And that we don’t need to fit kids into this specific mold – we don’t have to see success in this way. Instead we could look at each specific child, his background and ecology, his strengths. What Leo has achieved is success for him – he’s made all of these wonderful relationships and built all of these skills and he had to leave home to go seek it out and he succeeded at it. For him that’s success.
So, school isn’t playing precisely the role you’d like to see it playing in children’s lives – why isn’t it?
I think, partly, we need to look at the country as a whole and our lawmakers. We look at the top – the President and the Congressmen – everyone in charge of making the laws. They largely don’t understand education and then they put their uneducated view of education onto the rest of us. They know from their own experience and maybe a little from advisors, but you rarely hear about teachers going in these roles. Even if you look more locally at the school board level. You have leaders in the community who are parents who are just interested making these decisions and they don’t have the education in what it takes to run a school – they have what information is given to them, what’s presented to them, and what they know from their own experience.
What this meant is that, as a teacher and as an administrator, especially at a public school, I felt like my hands were largely tied and I was kept from doing what I know is best for children from my experience and education. I’m sometimes not allowed to provide the support children need to learn and grow because I’m being told that’s not correct. It was much worse when I was at a public school because if we didn’t do these things we didn’t get money, and we obviously needed money to hire teachers, to have access to technology and curriculum, and field trip experiences. It’s a necessary evil that you have to have funding – and you’re punished if you don’t agree with the requirements for getting funding. If you talked to people making laws – if you talk to them I’m sure they wouldn’t want this experience for their children. Or maybe their children have a different experience and can fit in the box better than the majority of children in America.
When I worked in public school and even before I got my job in a private school I was completely against private schools. I grew up in the public education system - I only attended public universities, I was champion of public schools. I felt, "we can do this". But then, living in an area where they were cutting hundreds of jobs in public schools and private schools were my only option – and then seeing the benefits…we don’t have to do certain things. We don’t have to give standardized tests. We do have some families who want those scores because they’ve been taught to believe these things are important. But it actually doesn’t measure the things that we teach the students.
At my current school we have the freedom to look at research and change the way we approach and teach children - change because we learned from research and we know this approach is best and not because we need to do this so we can raise money.
There are so many kids in the public system who need something different because of their learning differences. We need to build awareness and develop some strategies - often not even difficult strategies! But right now it can’t happen unless you happen to have a leader at an individual school site who sees it’s important and brings it in. Or you have to pay $37,000 a year for private school for a first grader because public school won’t give your kid what they need.
What are the things you haven’t been able to do that are right for kids?
The biggest example that’s probably the most universal is testing. Even on the reservation I had to give a test to see if a student was an English Language Learner. While, yes, children should improve their English skills, we also should be helping them develop these strengths in their native language. We should honor that they also have these other skills that are dying and we want to validate those.
Giving that test changes the whole outcome of a child’s education because it puts them in certain classes. But the test itself was so culturally irrelevant for them. We were asked to measure their oral language skills by asking them to describe a picture of a parrot. These kids could probably tell me many things in English - they could name body parts, etc. But they don’t have access to a zoo – and I was asked to judge them on a very fundamental level about a language that they had no experience with! There was another question about a bike – but there were dirt roads on the reservation – these kids don’t have bikes! There were these bullheads - hard and spiky things on the road that would pop tires if you did have a bike.
So, these things that you think are part of the common English-speaking American experience didn't apply to their lives. Yet I was forced to give this test, take away from their instructional time, and label and judge them based on things they weren’t familiar with. We’re taking away from valuable instruction time – time we could be deeply teaching things in a meaningful way – and instead we’re taking away weeks of instruction to give them these tests that don’t tell us anything about them. They don’t tell us what their strengths are or really don’t tell us what they need to be successful in life. Whether or not they understand what a predicate nominative is… who cares??
Erin: I don’t’ know what a predicate nominative is!
Marisa: Exactly! Clearly, it’s not important. You’re doing okay without being able to explain it. Unnecessary information. Those tests and the questions are based on what some people think are important and what some people think is success – be they politicians, lawmakers, or the corporations who make these tests- who don’t understand the experience of being a child in America. They’re definitely culturally biased. And yet we’re forced to give them and we’re forced to base a student’s success on that test.
We spend so much time focusing on kids' deficits instead of saying – you can do it differently or, you know what, that’s not even going to be important in your life and you should focus on this other skill because you’re great in this. For instance, maybe geometry doesn’t matter in that it won't hold you back - you are a fantastic public speaker so you should continue to develop those skills. There’s just not enough focus on strengths and so much focus on, "well, this is what we have to test you on so it must mean that you need these to be successful in life and now you can’t do these things. So, sorry... You now can’t have these opportunities because of how your brain is wired or because your parents can’t afford to send you to the fancy private schools and the public school had its funding cut and didn’t have the money to bring in the trainers to fix things."
There’s this idea of punishing instead of helping. The knowledge exists in this country to make education great for all kids, we just have to tap into it in a more global way.