In a profession that was already overburdened and undervalued, this last year has been an especially challenging one for our country’s teachers. They have had to master new technologies and learn how to teach their students through screens. And they’ve had to do all of this without the sanctuary of their classrooms. Zoom interruptions — from their own family members to the family members of their students — became par for the course. Bringing stacks of papers home to grade can’t hold a candle to what we’ve asked our teachers to do over this last year.
In the midst of it all, however, this time has also produced many breakthroughs. In the last year, I have witnessed incredible efforts by the teachers educating my own two children, Eka and Skye, who attend Monterey Highlands Elementary in the Alhambra Unified School District. Eka, my daughter, is in Jill Saavedra’s sixth-grade class. After observing Saavedra teach lessons many times over the last year, I am impressed by how well she knows her students and her methods of encouraging learning — even online. There is an extra level of concern and care in her demeanor that reflects her devotion to her students. She is astute at empowering students with practical life skills. In fact, she’s inspired Eka to become more organized and to take more initiative in her studies — and even to doing more chores around the house.
My son Skye is in Maria Gonzalez’s first-grade class. For now, Skye continues to immerse himself in his Legos and Godzilla (they’re in the home with him, after all), but his teacher’s kindness and dedication to her students is pulling him out of his shell. Gonzalez goes out of her way to make sure each of her young students understands her lessons, and she’s always available to offer extra help, which includes individual Zoom conferences with each student once a week. My son has needed extra help reading, and Gonzalez has the Midas touch of simultaneously encouraging and pushing him beyond his perceived limitations.
Over the years, I have occasionally heard stories of people who felt discouraged by a teacher. Thankfully, we have teachers like Gonzalez and Saavedra who bring out the best in children, even over Zoom. Even as we dealt with uncertainties in our own lives, my family has been inspired by these teachers’ capacity to stay energized through this long pandemic. They both go above and beyond the call of duty, and I know they are just two examples of teachers who make such sacrifices while uplifting students in and around our city.
Praising it backward
Expressing gratitude to teachers is extremely important to me because I never got the chance to thank my first favorite teacher, and there is nothing like death (or a pandemic) to make you reflect on missed chances. My third- and fourth-grade teacher, Marguerite Navarette, died in 2016. I always meant to find her and tell her how the skills she taught me 35 years ago made me want to become a writer. Though I had not seen her since 1986, I thought about her frequently in my journey to becoming a writer.
Ms. Navarette was incredible. We wrote every day in her class. We kept journals religiously, wrote many short essays, brainstormed and did free writes. She taught us a strategy called, “The Power Paragraph,” which including reading strategies that we used to understand Shakespeare’s works. We read “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Comedy of Errors.” Some folks thought she was crazy trying to teach Shakespeare to fourth graders, but she knew exactly what she was doing.
Her teaching skills were so impeccable that our class was featured in a segment on ABC7’s “Eye on L.A.” I still remember the day the crew came to film our class. I watched the segment when it aired back in 1984, but I do not have a copy. Shortly after this, she took us on a field trip to UCLA, and that was the day I decided I would go there. Eight years later, I did.
Twenty-plus years after studying with Ms. Navarette, I kept thinking about her in graduate school when I read writing theorists such as Peter Elbow. More recently, when I read Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, I realized that Ms. Navarette was a part of a new wave in teaching that used writing to empower students.
A few years after Ms. Navarrete, I had three outstanding English teachers in high school. Steve Cizmar was my teacher in both my freshmen and senior years. His class was where I first learned to analyze poetry and write an essay quoting lines as textual evidence. Cizmar’s class was also where I learned that song lyrics are poetry. Ciz loved Bruce Springsteen, and together we analyzed Springsteen’s classic song, “Mansion on the Hill.”
My sophomore English teacher at Artesia High, Joy Husband, had us read “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse and “Walden, or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau. These books changed my life. They opened me up to metaphysics, and years later when I read Thich Nhat Hanh and other spiritual thinkers, I was ready. Ms. Husband taught me that when it comes to essay writing, you just need to start and you will figure out what to say through the process. She reminded us not to overthink and to trust our own voices.
My 11th-grade English teacher, Dave Eggie, was an advocate of poetry. He led us in writing our own collection of poems. I recently unearthed my collection. Most of the poems were, of course, pretty bad because I was 16, but those 20-odd poems I wrote with him opened me up to language. About seven years later, when my first poetry chapbook was published, I knew what I was doing because I had completed my first manuscript with Eggie in 1991. A few years back, I found Eggie on Facebook and thanked him.
These early teachers prepared me for college writing at UCLA and then the turbulent times of the early 1990s in Los Angeles. By the time I was 19, I was hooked on writing.
Before closing out this praisesong for teachers, I want to pay tribute to my favorite professor in graduate school at California State University, Los Angeles: Dr. Lauri Scheyer. I was already in my 30s when I got my interdisciplinary master’s degree in English and history, but Scheyer taught me finer points about writing and publishing. She taught me how to become the best version of myself.
Scheyer did not try to indoctrinate her students. Rather, she helped us get to know ourselves better by offering us the space to grow. She used project-based learning for each class. We always created extended portfolios of our work in genres such as creative nonfiction and poetry. Through this process, we all unfolded into fuller expressions of our true selves.
I know everyone has their own stories about their own favorite teachers. In this especially difficult time, it is important to remember just how influential our teachers are —whether they are teaching our children or taught us as we were growing up. Like each of us, they are not perfect, but they are among the highest expressions of humanity, and they have kept many of us grounded during this unprecedented time.
As more and more children and teachers return to the classroom, let’s consider how much worse our world be without them —and let them know: We see you. We appreciate you. Thank you.
Mike Sonksen is poet, professor, author of “Letters to My City” and dad of two in Los Angeles.