By Helene Seifer (March 2013)
Abigail Adams, the second First Lady of the United States, said, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” Our Ebell Directory reveals an impressive number of members who’ve dedicated their lives to the care and feeding of impressionable young minds, and society is the better for their “ardor and diligence.”
Scholarship Committee member Mary King, a 48-year veteran of LAUSD, taught all grades and served as a Dean. Her most prized memory, and the experience that most influenced her teaching, was a 10-week trip sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education and the USC School of International Relations in 1973. She traveled to schools in India, Nepal, Thailand, Japan, Greece and other countries, even meeting with India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Mary recounts, “I saw that children were excited about learning in other places and how interconnected and interdependent the human race is. As they say, ‘It’s a small world after all.’ My teaching changed.” She brought back a deeper interest in different cultures, eventually establishing an LAUSD multi-cultural teacher resource library.
When asked what she would advise a young teacher today, Mary offered, “Let students know what’s expected. Then, know your curriculum and establish goals.” Most importantly, “Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each student. Individualized learning is definitely the key.”
That philosophy is also important to 38-year LAUSD veteran Harriet Vallens, who helped develop and implement multi-age classrooms at Wonderland Elementary School. Harriet taught in a first-second-third grade classroom. “It works because you can teach to the highest level; students could be grouped differently for specialized instruction.”
Although Harriet is retired, she can’t stay away from teaching, tutoring a special needs middle-school child and volunteering at her grandchildren’s school. She believes learning depends on “a great teacher and supportive community.” She also stresses that technology has been a boon because “so many children are visual learners, not just auditory.”
Sarina Simon also believes technology is an important component of education. She began her career as an elementary school teacher, but now runs a multimedia company that develops technological learning tools for games, toys, and classroom use. She points out, “Technology has changed the way kids ingest and digest information. Using it wisely in the classroom is important.” Sarina notes that today’s classrooms have “a more challenging environment” than in the past. “Parents are working more. Students have different learning styles. We demand a higher level of proficiency. It has always been the goal of education to individualize, but now with technology there are more tools to address it.”
After 37 years, Morency Maxwell shuttered Venture School, the alternative high school she began for students who didn’t fit into a standard school environment. She found technology to be a godsend. “Computers made it easier to offer an individualized program.” It was important to “respect the child and the child’s style of learning and to take into consideration how the child felt about himself.” Over her decades in education, Morency saw great shifts in parenting styles and parental and student expectations. “In the 70s there was so much freedom that some students weren’t getting enough structure to thrive. Now often the parents want an Ivy League school for a child who struggles to just get by.” Sometimes she had to convince the parent to set different goals.
Toni Jones also dedicated her life to helping children who couldn’t function in a regular classroom. She just retired in July after 30 years teaching higher functioning but severely handicapped kids at Lanterman High School, an LAUSD Special Education Center. The emphasis was on functional academics: banking, going to the Laundromat, planting a garden and cooking what they grew. She says, “Always believe in students, that they can progress. The administration, teachers, students, parents and the community have to work as a network.”
Toni is a champion of LA’s public school system. “The district is well-organized. There are many opportunities for advancement. And there are so many good teachers who are dedicated to their students.” Toni sums it up, “Teaching is a great profession because we do affect lives. At the end of the year we can see progress. That’s very gratifying.”