Podcast: Amanda in San Marcos, California, for Teachers in America

On the HMH Learning Moments podcast today, we have our third episode of the Teachers in America series, hosted by HMH’s Chief Learning Officer, Rose Else-Mitchell.

 

Our guest is Amanda Rack, a first grade teacher at Knob Hill Elementary School in San Marcos, California, about 45 miles from the border with Mexico. Amanda is a new mother and returned to her classroom after maternity leave midway through this school year. She gives her all—and more—to her students and to her family, yet struggles with feeling like her best is not good enough. 

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Rose Else-Mitchell and Amanda Rack in Amanda's classroom

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee, and for today's Teachers in America episode, host Rose Else-Mitchell, HMH's Chief Learning Officer, sits down with the Amanda Rack at the Knob Hill Elementary School in San Marcos, California about 45 miles from the border with Mexico. Amanda is a new mom and a first-grade teacher who returned to her classroom midway through the school year. Now, let's hear from Amanda and Rose.

Rose Else-Mitchell: Tell me a little bit about the moment, if you remember it, when you decided you wanted to be a teacher.

Amanda Rack: I feel like I always kind of knew I wanted to be a teacher. As long ago as when I was a little girl, I always had my stuffed animals set up and I would be teaching them in my room. And even when friends came over, we would play teacher all the time, and I was always the teacher role. I definitely tried other routes because I thought that teachers didn't make a lot of money, and so I knew I wanted to work with children. I was about four different majors. I ended up graduating with my degree in child psychology. The second I graduated, I was like, I should have gotten my teacher credential. So, I went immediately and did my teacher credential program, and I finished my credential in 2008.

Rose: And that's a great combination, having child psychology and a teaching credential, right? Because it's not just about teaching. It's also about really understanding the kids in front of you.

Amanda: Absolutely. When I was in college, I was actually a behavioral therapist for children with autism for four years. And so that gave me a lot of good insight into students with special needs and working with them and how I can best serve them. 

Rose: Do you have an example of something you learned early on through that process?

Amanda: It's a lot of recognizing those behaviors. There are children that are on the spectrum and their parents might not be aware of what the signs of [autism] are. Two years ago, I had a student, and in the beginning of the year, I kind of thought that he was on the spectrum. There were some things that were really sticking out for me. And you know I'm not a doctor, so I can't diagnose, but I did let the parents know that there were some things that I noticed. He was perseverating, he was kind of doing hand flapping. And I think I knew that because I had worked with so many children with autism. And he was diagnosed at the end of the year with autism.

Rose: Right.

Amanda:  And that really helped them find out how they were going to move forward with his education and how they could help him succeed in the classroom, because now they knew that they needed to get different resources for him.

Rose: And that's a whole different set of recognition skills and awareness and even language about how to talk to kids themselves and parents about an issue like that. That's not what you learn in a literacy course, right?

Amanda: No, and one thing I learned early on is a child isn't autistic; they're a child that has autism, and just being a little bit more sensitive about how we talk about certain needs or special needs that students have.

Rose: And you have a lot of English learners in the school and obviously a lot of students who might be second generation but also first-generation immigrant children. We just saw your literacy block this morning . . . how does that change the nature of how you teach reading and how you approach literacy?

Amanda: It changes a lot. I think good teachers use strategies every day that help English language learners. I think when you're using good teaching practices, you kind of set them up for success because you're giving them graphic organizers, you're using visual cues. So, for me that's the integrated ELD. That's ELD that's integrated into my daily lessons. 

Rose: And it's just about being a good teacher.

Amanda: Yeah, it's good teaching practices. So, if you're modeling good teaching practices, you're already going to be giving those students a lot of what they need but also at our school we have designated ELD time so that's 20 to 30 minutes . . .

Rose: ELD is English language development, right?

Amanda: Yes, English language development. During each day of learning, we have 20 to 30 minutes during the day where we meet with just our lowest ELD kids, and we give them focus support and we do have curriculum for that. Some of the other grades at our school—the older grades—they'll push out, so all the kids that are at this level go to this teacher. So, we do have to be a lot more cognizant and aware of making sure that we're helping those students. I've had a few students that came to me as English language learners and by the end of the year they were reclassified as English proficient because they had met their goals.

Rose: That means they effectively learned English and met even their reading goals for that year. . .

Amanda: Absolutely. 

Students at the computer station during reading rotations

Rose: Which is amazing. 

Amanda: Absolutely! The goal is to get them reclassified by fifth grade because studies have shown that students that are not classified as English proficient by fifth grade or by the time they go into middle school aren't as successful. . . . Once they get into middle school they get pushed into "I'm an English language learner. I have to be in these classes. I have to be on this track." And it keeps them from doing other things that other students who aren't English language learners get to do.

Rose: So, does that make you feel pressured to try and have students especially at, you know, you teach first grade, at this is early level to really make those kinds of gains in a year?

Amanda: I think I feel a lot of pressure as a first-grade teacher altogether because . . .

Rose: It's a big year.

Amanda: It's a big year.

Rose: So much happens. 

Amanda: Yeah. And I'm responsible for teaching them the one tool that they need to be successful for the rest of their lives, which is reading. And if they leave my room and they can't read well, that's going to hinder them from grade to grade to grade. There's a lot of pressure there, but it's also why I love first grade because it's really rewarding. Watching students start the beginning of the school year and not know how to read or have limited reading skills, and to hear by the end of the year their parents saying, "Oh, we're driving in the car, they're reading every sign. They're reading to me at home. They're reading to their siblings." To me, that is the gift of being a first-grade teacher. So yeah, it’s pressure, but it's also super rewarding.

Rose: It's sort of a miracle, right?

Rose: And of course, all the science shows that our brains actually aren't really organized to read. They're very much organized to speak. And even writing is a more familiar kind of activity than reading to our brain. So, the amount of systems that have to engage to make that happen is amazing.

Amanda: Well, especially with the English language. I mean there's phonics patterns and you teach them these patterns and then there's 40 words that are an exception to the rule, and you can't really explain to them why. It's just that's the way it is. We were just teaching long "e" with double "e" and "ea." And it's hard because I have to tell them, "Well, you just have to figure out which one looks right," because there's no rule. 

Rose: Right. Do you think literacy and how you've taught it has changed a lot in the last decade or so that you've been teaching? 

Amanda: Absolutely. Because when I started teaching, it was all whole group, this is how we teach reading, here's a book, let's talk about it. This is a whole-group lesson. And now, I feel like we use both. So, we do a lot of whole-group activities, but then as you saw my reading block really is small-group guided reading. I can determine which groups are having more difficulty with fiction text and which ones are having more difficulty with nonfiction, because for some kids, fiction comes really easily and nonfiction is really challenging. And then vice versa. So, I think it's changed a lot. There's a lot more focus on reading comprehension, and I also think that we are expecting a lot more out of kids than we used to. I'm amazed by what these first graders can do. But I have learned over the years that if you keep the level of expectation low, that's where your kids will sit. If you raise the level of expectation, they'll rise and they'll meet you there.

Rose: And even 6-year-olds know.

Amanda: Totally. 

Rose: They know when something significant is expected of them, and they know when frankly it's lower, and often I think kids get that sense that you don't care enough about them to set high expectations.

Amanda: Absolutely.

Rose: Thinking about literacy is something not just a set of comprehension skills or phonemic skills that you teach, what are some of the things you do to create a culture of literacy that's different and perhaps not part of the standards or academics? 

Amanda: Well, one thing I've been really trying to work on with literacy this year is, as a team, we kind of talked about trying to introduce more diverse books to our students.

Rose: You mean as a first grade team?

Amanda: As a grade-level team, yeah.

Rose: How many on that team?

Amanda: Six.

Rose: Six, so six Grade 1 teachers and you all plan together?

Amanda: Not always. Sometimes we do. But it was a conversation we started having around Dr. Seuss' birthday about Read Across America and that the kids already have a lot of exposure to Dr. Seuss. So, instead of spending a full day talking about Dr. Seuss, why don't we actually read across America and introduce the students during that week to books that come from all different places? So, we found books from different cultures. We had books that had children that were different races, that had different beliefs and values. And I think it's important with bringing diverse books to the classroom because I want to make sure that every child can connect to that book by knowing that there's someone in that book that maybe looks like them or has a family like them. And with trying to have more diverse books in the classroom, it gives kids two things. One, it lets them see a reflection of themselves, but it also lets them see past themselves and to see characters that are different than them and realize that that's okay, too. It's okay to be different. So, one thing I've I always used is Donors Choose. Donors Choose is a website that teachers can put up projects that they would like to get funded for their classrooms, and community members donate. Sometimes parents donate. So, I made a Donors Choose project for getting diverse books for our classroom, and it got fully funded, which I was really excited about.

Rose: How much was it for?

Amanda: It was about seven hundred dollars.

Rose: That is great. Congratulations!

Amanda: Yeah, thank you! And so, I got 37 new hardback books for our classroom that have diverse characters, they're from diverse backgrounds, and so we've been reading a lot of those. Every day I try to choose one, and we read them just to kind of show them that things can be different. Yesterday we ended the day with a circle and we all, they all went around and talked about what makes them unique and special and why they like that about themselves. And I just really want them to start realizing that who they are is special and that it doesn't mean that they need to be like somebody else to be special.

Rose: Yeah. Yeah, that's fantastic. And it seems like you've been able to get hold of enough kinds of diverse books, right?

Amanda: Yeah, and I couldn't have done that, I couldn't have done it without that support. I spend a lot of money on my own classroom and buy lots of books.

Rose: Have worked out how much you do spend every year? 

Amanda: Probably a couple thousand dollars.

Rose: Yeah.

Amanda: Even with the school supplies, I buy all the school supplies at the beginning of the school year.

Rose: Like what?

Amanda: Pencil boxes. All the glue sticks. Their crayons. Making sure that they have all their folders, all their notebooks, labels for all of that, all the clipboards I have in my classroom, whiteboards.

Rose: So, does the school tell you that you have to buy them?

Amanda: No, I mean those are things that I provide because I know that it's going to make their learning more successful and make our classroom run more efficiently. We do get donations from parents which is great, but I do work at a low-income school and so . . .

Rose: There really isn't a budget for buying actual . . .

Amanda: Yeah, we do get supplies at the beginning of the year. We can order certain things. We can order crayons. We can order glue sticks. But it's nice to be able to make sure that everyone has the same thing and that there's . . . it's not like we could do a supply list.

Rose: Yeah.

Amanda: You know where all the parents bring something. We get three reams of paper a month, and that's all we get to use for copying.

Amanda: So, I ask for donations for copy paper, and sometimes I go buy it at Costco, so I think I spend probably a couple thousand dollars a year on school supplies and even just to make my classroom look the way it is.

Rose: Yeah, which is beautiful by the way.

Amanda: Oh, thank you.

Rose: Going back to the topic of students who come to you from other countries. The immigration debate that's happening nationally and certainly there are local conversations around immigration. Other teachers tell me that this is impacting their schools and sometimes their classrooms. I mean has that been an issue for you over the last period?

Amanda: I don't think it has been as much of an issue I think because of where we live. Being so close to the border and living in San Diego, I feel like it's not as much of an issue because it's just the culture of our neighborhoods. 

Knob Hill Elementary School in San Marcos, California

Rose: Do you feel like you live in an almost bilingual culture? I mean do you hear that much Spanish?

Amanda: I wouldn't say . . . I don't hear a lot of Spanish. A lot of the families that do come here, they want to learn English and they want their kids to learn English, and so they really focus on trying to make sure that English is up in the front of their vocabulary.

Rose: Are there parents though that you see on parent-teacher night that don't speak English?

Amanda: Absolutely. And one of the things that I use for my class as far as rewards is an app on the phone and it's called Class Dojo. And so . . .

Rose: My kid's teacher uses Class Dojo.

Amanda: Yeah, and so almost of the parents have it on their phones and what I love about Class Dojo is when the parent signs up they select their language. So, I have Spanish speakers that their language is Spanish. So, when I send a message through Class Dojo, it's automatically translated into Spanish so when they read it, it comes to them in Spanish. When they type on their phone in Spanish it automatically comes in in English to me. And it really helps bridge a gap.

Rose: Wow. That is the power of technology. 

So, I'm going to switch a little bit to talk about you, which doesn't always happen. We tend to, when we talk about teachers, which is one of the reasons we're doing this show, is when we talk to teachers, often we talk about the things that you and I just talked about which is the kids, the instruction. You know, best practices in the classroom. And I think sometimes people are prone to forget that teachers have lives outside of Room 21 in the elementary school. You just had a baby a little bit ago. Tell me about him.

Amanda: Yeah, my son Landon just turned eight months. And so, I spent the first half of the school year at home with him. I came back in January after our winter break, which was a really hard transition—a hard transition for me as a mom and as a teacher. It was hard to leave him. And I think as a teacher it's a different kind. I'm sure all parents, when they leave their child and go to work, feel that same feeling of separation and feeling bad or having it be difficult. I think what's different being a teacher is that I'm spending more time with other people's children than my own. And that's hard.

[Read more about maternity leave for teachers.]

Amanda: It's hard and you know, I know that I'm leaving him with somebody else who I hope has the same love and care for him as I do for the kids in my class, but it's definitely been a struggle. I feel like, as a teacher, it's always been my identity as being a teacher, and I feel like I've always been somebody that really gives 110 percent in my classroom and to my kids. One thing that has been challenging for me coming back is kind of this feeling of mediocrity because I feel like I'm stretched, and so I feel like sometimes I'm mediocre in the classroom and sometimes I feel mediocre at home. I just feel like I'm being pulled and I'm not able to give my best everywhere, and I think for me that's been a really hard . . . a hard struggle.

Rose: It's the hardest thing about being a working mother and I think it's true of teachers, nurses, doctors, business people . . . You thought you were juggling and multitasking your life before kids, and then when you have a kid and you keep working, it's just, nothing feels like it's getting done well, right? 

Amanda: And I can't get anything done at home. I can plan to do work at home. And the second I get home, he is my priority. Work's not going to get done, and I've had just kind of just come to terms with that and be like, that's okay. And also knowing that what I am bringing to the table is enough. I'm giving these kids a lot and I'm doing a lot for them. And it may not feel like a lot to me, but I'm going to be my own worst critic, and I have to know that I am succeeding here, and I am succeeding at home.

Students participate in "word work" reading rotation

Rose: Just being here and being with you, you know. It's obvious. And your absolute commitment to each kid, completely evident. There's a phrase I'm sure you've heard about it, but I found it really helpful when I had many of these same feelings coming back to work, which is "good enough" mothering, right? So instead of thinking it's got to be perfect or it's got to be this, it's like it could be good enough, you know, and I think that's right. And my guess is that your teaching is not “good enough” teaching.

Amanda: But it's funny. I am the very . . . I'm very OCD in the classroom. I'm very like “things have to be a certain way,” and when I make anchor charts they need to look the right way and look nice. I sometimes have to remind myself, "Amanda, it's good enough for who it's for." It's for 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds and it's okay.

Rose: It's also good for little kids to see that teachers aren’t perfect all the time, right?

Amanda: It's been challenging, but I also feel like it's taught me a lot about myself and about what I'm capable of. And I think it makes me also value the role that I have with the kids a lot more. Because I, I now know what I'm looking for and expecting for my child when he's in school and to know that someone’s spending that much time with them every day. I want to make sure that they're not only teaching them education, but also that they're helping me make my child a good person. And that they're kind and considerate and make them feel like they're cared about and that they're loved. And I think I did that before. That's been something for me that's always been a strength I think I have. But also, something that's always my focus is to make personal connections with each of my students.

Rose: And what are some of the ways you do that? 

Amanda: Just like by learning about them, taking time to have small conversations with them even in the middle of the school day to find out about what they learned or find out about what they like to do outside of school. If they have a baseball game and they let me know about it, going to that baseball game or doing things that just let them know that I really care about them.

Amanda: Kids that feel cared about and kids feel loved achieve greater because they also want to please me and show me that they're doing a good job. And I think that I always have done that. But I think my level of concern and care and making sure that the way I say things to them is different because now I'm thinking about it as a mother, too.

Rose: Yeah, it's an interesting Venn diagram between teacher and mother where they sometimes get very, very close.

Amanda: Absolutely.

Rose: And then other times very separate, which can be tiring. Right? Because it in some sense especially as you inhabit the role of mother more, it feels like you might be mothering all day long and sometimes all 25 kids.

Amanda: I was just talking to them about that the other day. I said, "I'm not just your teacher. I'm a nurse when you fall in hurt your knee. I'm your counselor when you're upset about something that I have to make you feel better or I want to make you feel better. And teachers have a lot of different jobs." I have one little girl this year who doesn't ever . . . isn't able to bring a snack to school every day. And I have snacks, and every day at snack recess I make sure that I give her snacks, so she has a snack. And I was gone on parental leave for like six days, so I packed her six days’ worth of snacks and made sure that she had them in her backpack so that she had them while I was gone because I knew that she wouldn't have them otherwise. And those are the things as a teacher you go home and you worry about.

Rose: And those are the things that you don't learn in ed. school.

Amanda: No.

Rose: So, can you ever imagine leaving teaching?

Amanda: I don't know. I have a real passion for teaching teachers. That's kind of what I really love to do. I do have my . . .

Rose: You mean new teachers?

Amanda: Yeah. I do have my admin credentials, so that's eventually something I hope to move into —move into a more administrative position, but not right now because right now, I'm going to focus on these kids and I want to focus on my family. Once I feel like my family is more settled and we're done having kids, then I think I'll try to venture into that. But I think it's what I was meant to do. Anything else wouldn’t be as fulfilling.

Rose: Coming back to the kids in this classroom, what do you hope that each child will able to take with them from Ms. Rack’s class to second grade? 

Amanda: I want every student to leave knowing that they were loved and cared about, and knowing that every day when they came to school, they had somebody in their court that cheered them on.

Rose: Well, I'm pretty sure seeing those happy faces in the playground that they feel that.

Amanda: I hope so I have a lot of kids that come back to visit me. Year after year. And I think that's because of the connections I make with them and them knowing that even if they're not my kid anymore in my class like, I still have ownership over them in some way and that I still believe in them. And I want to see them succeed. 

Rose Else-Mitchell and Amanda Rack recording at Amanda's school in San Marcos, California

Rose: And you'll always be their first grade teacher. I can imagine some future podcast of Teachers in America and a teacher saying that they became influenced to be a teacher by their first-grade teacher Ms. Rack.

Amanda: Yeah, that would be crazy.

Rose: Thank you so much for spending so much time and giving your heart to your kids and to the work you do. We're so grateful for teachers like you.

Amanda: Thank you.

Onalee: Thank you for listening and learning with us. You can join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com, backslash, shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's episode and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening. 

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Research for this piece included contributions from K. A. Jagai and Ireen Hossain, Girls Write Now writers.