by Madhavi Sunder
After the excitement of starting school last week, I thought I would take a break from the usual column format to do something different. This summer I interviewed Mary Allegoren, who retired in 2012 after 27 years as an educator. Her career concluded with 8 years teaching at Cesar Chavez Elementary and 10 years teaching at Marguerite Montgomery.
My children did not have Ms. Allegoren as a teacher; I got to know her on the campaign trail. Her views expressed here are of course her own and should not be mistaken for my views or the views of all teachers. What is important is that we have conversations with teachers as we focus on creating great classroom experiences for all children. In my experience, what many of us remember from our own schooldays is not the programs we were in, but the teachers we had who knew us, cared for us, and inspired us.
Ms. Allegoren is one of the inspiring people I have met on my Schools Tour.
. For the past several months I have been visiting with principals, teachers, staff, parents, and students at each of our 20 schools in the district to learn more about each school’s successes and challenges. Below are excerpts from my conversation with Ms. Allegoren.
Below are excerpts from our conversations.
Q: Why did you decide to become a teacher? And did the work live up to your expectations?
A: It was the desire to work creatively with children. Yes because first graders are the most creative beings I know.
Q: What was it like teaching Spanish Immersion?
A: Chavez had a lot of really good resources. It had an excellent library. Spanish Science programs, too. There was everything there that you needed as a teacher to support doing the work that you need, to do this right. Having the program at one school really affirmed the backing that the Davis Community has for the Spanish Immersion program. It was a parent-initiated and funded program.
Q: Were there tensions between special programs and a neighborhood school?
A: It wasn’t an issue anymore after it became its own school. Because it was so popular, they chose to open up a strand at Montgomery, which required other books, other supplies. All of a sudden you need everything in Spanish at a new site.
Q: Why did you move over there?
A: I was ready for a change. I just wanted to do something different. I have that sort of restless spirit. First Renee Andrews went to MME, then I followed. I taught first grade and for one year a combination class. Part of what drew me to Marguerite Montgomery was Rob Rodden, the first principal. He was just such an amazing guy and I really wanted to work with him. Everybody that came to MME initially was following Rob Rodden because people wanted to work with him. He was charismatic and calm. He had a calm aura about him that led to a lot of trust. He was a teacher so he knew what teachers wanted and needed. He had a fun side. He was able to really relate to the children and knew all the children.
Q: What were some highlights at Montgomery?
A: It was challenging starting a program up, and establishing certain yearly celebrations and kind of a culture of the Spanish Immersion program there that we felt was unique. Renee Andrews was a great leader. She really knew how to work with parents. Every year we would do a Fiesta. Parents would get together for potluck.
Q: What were some challenges at Montgomery?
A: If a child was not well suited to learning in Spanish, he would be placed in the regular program at odd times during the year. That would sometimes create resentment. There appeared to be some inequities between the regular program and the Spanish Immersion program in the distribution of children with problems or whose parents could help in the classroom.
Q: What would you say were differences between Chavez and Montgomery?
A: What works for Chavez did not work for Marguerite Montgomery. There were many heritage language children who could not take advantage of the Spanish Immersion program as it was structured at MME. I always hoped that there would be devised a program that would offer Spanish speakers the opportunity to learn in Spanish. I believe that is what is happening now.
Q: What did you appreciate most about teaching in the District?
A: The best part was parent support. They were willing to do whatever it is that a teacher wanted them to do. You could do all kinds of art and performance, or math and science. People say in Davis the parents are so hard. I rarely had that experience. I always felt really, really supported by parents. They wanted to make the program work for their kids and wanted to be involved.
Q: What else makes the difference for teachers?
A: Having good principals that are willing to stick around makes a huge difference. A principal that takes care of teachers, making sure they feel supported. Making sure they are getting the kind of training they want. Interfacing with difficult parents so teachers feel protected and safe. Bringing innovative ideas to the staff and supporting them in making any kind of changes that are required. Also understanding how hard it is to change and making sure that teachers get enough time to change.
Q: When you first started teaching the class sizes were 30 to 1. For many years the primary grades had lower class sizes of 20 to 1. Now they are back up again at higher ratios. What difference did small class sizes make?
A: It was wonderful. You felt like you could do your job instead of just crowd control. Children began to read and write earlier. They would often come to first grade knowing how to read and write.
Q: You remained a classroom teacher for 20 years. What was it like?
A: Because I was in Spanish Immersion I had permission to teach through song and art. It was essential to use many hands-on experiences to communicate meaning in a foreign language. I felt No Child Left Behind really put an emphasis on testing and it was sad to see that become the focus of curriculum for teachers and for evaluating teachers. But with first graders, I didn’t really have that pressure of testing.
Now teachers are using the Common Core curriculum. From 2010 to the time I retired we developed priorities for curriculum that was carefully planned and agreed upon by all the teachers. It seemed to me to be a better direction than NCLB–getting the tests to correspond to the curriculum. I especially liked having somebody to collaborate with. When we started the Common Core we worked with the regular (non-Spanish Immersion) teachers. There’s just nothing like working with other teachers to come up with curriculum. Someone said, “You’re only as great as the teacher next door.” I would encourage more collaborative work. Building teams. The research supports collaboration. It lifts the level of all of teaching.
Q: What do you think about the achievement gap?
A: It is important that there be a heterogeneous classroom with students of all ability levels and talents. If you pull out the high achievers in Davis and put them all in one program it just increases the achievement gap and gives the perception that the regular program is not sufficient. Creative projects that help high achievers lift all student achievement across the board.
Q: What does public education mean to you?
A: It is definitely a way to bring all kinds of people together and have them experience other cultures and build community. Children need to work in an educational environment that is challenging, engaging and collaborative.
Q: What makes a great teacher?
A: It is creativity and dedication, hard work and an ability to relate to parents and bring them in and make them feel welcome. Teachers need to be willing to learn, to try things that are different. There’s an art to teaching that’s indefinable. Great teachers know how to bring kids into the learning. I just don’t know that you can put it in words. You know it when you see it. Renee Andrews was one example of a very creative teacher.
Q: What were some of your favorite moments in the classroom?
A: Seeing children joyfully singing songs in Spanish while painting or seeing them perform plays they created in Spanish and most of all seeing them move from non-Spanish speaking, reading or writing to writers, readers and speakers of Spanish who understood the language. It is the greatest gift of teaching first grade.
Q: A.A. Milne has a famous poem, “Now We Are Six.” What did you like most about teaching first grade?
A: How to get children to focus and be independent learners. They need to learn how to read independently, how to write independently, how to sit and listen. There’s this whole system that trains children how to be focused learners called “The Daily Five” which is a powerful tool for gaining an internal locus of control. When I would teach them to sit and read by themselves in a foreign language for 20 minutes without stopping it seemed miraculous.
Q: You’ve mentioned some of the nature-based initiatives–Birch Lane’s garden and chicken coops, Cesar Chavez’s garden, Judy Fleener’s “Roots and Shoots” lunchtime garden program. Why are these so special?
A: To me those are really fundamental to our survival as a species. It is essential to have experiences with nature and appreciation of nature so that future generations can continue to live on this planet. It is getting harder and harder for children to have direct experiences in nature as our forests disappear and our population grows. As technology becomes our only interaction with the beauty of the natural world we lose our compassion for others and for life as a whole. We find ourselves disconnected form the great web that supports all life. When children grow food, pick it, prepare it and eat it some of that connection is regained.
Q: What was the best decision you ever made as a teacher?
A: There were two decisions that happened at the same time. I decided to become a SI teacher and to train to use Waldorf teaching methods in the public school setting. They both gave me much joy and opportunity to be creative.
Q: What do you think will never change about the teaching profession?
A: Students will always need to be experiencing and learning with a living, loving human being.
Q: What advice would you give someone considering a career in teaching?
A: Learn to play an instrument, create art or crafts and bring whatever it is you love to do into your teaching. Take up meditation!
Q: What advice would you give to parents?
A: Get as involved as you possibly can in the classroom in a way that supports both your child and the teacher. Working as a team together will be the most beneficial approach for your child.
Q: In what concrete ways can the School Board support teachers and be a positive force for students in the classroom?
A: Listen to teachers. Don’t allow a few minority and loud voices determine outcomes for the whole that are not in their best interest.
Q: What five words would you use to describe your experience as a teacher?
A: Creative, challenging, inspiring, exhausting, (always) changing.
Q: Five words to describe your experience of retirement?
A: Joyful, joyful, joyful, joyful, joyful.
Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit www.sunderforschools.org or follow (and perhaps “Like”) her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sunderforschoolboard.