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How This Teacher Empowers Students to Find Their Own Answers
We’re telling stories about San Francisco public school teachers throughout the month of May as part of Teacher Appreciation Month. Visit thankateachertoday.org to show your gratitude for a local teacher!
It’s one of the last Tuesdays of the school year, and a class of kindergarten students at Dr. George Washington Carver Elementary in the Bayview are learning to write “how-to” books.
A few of the children ask their teacher, Ms. Christina Isles, how to jot down the words.
“I’m not going to spell anything for you,” she said. “Use the bubble-gum method, stretch [the word] out.”
Ms. Isles circles around the room and sits with children as they endeavor to finish their mini books. “What’s the first thing I need to know about making s’mores?” Ms. Isles asked one student. “What’s the first step?”
Those who work with her say Ms. Isles is especially adept at providing students the tools to learn, rather than the answers.
“She’s really good at empowering them to solve their own problems,” said San Francisco Education Fund volunteer Cindy Je, who tutors students each week in Ms. Isles’ class. The 10-year veteran educator applies this skill not only to writing and other schoolwork, but to students’ interpersonal relationships and emotions, Cindy said. “Sometimes she’ll ask a student, depending on a situation, ‘Is this a big problem, or small problem? Is this a big challenge or a small challenge?’ She’ll ask them to think about that.”
San Francisco Education Fund volunteer Torrey Vasey, who also tutors children in Ms. Isles’ classroom each week, remembers a time when a student was involved in a fight at recess.
“She immediately assembled the entire class and provided options to prevent a fight and stop bullying,” Torrey said. “She gave examples and asked each student how they would respond to prevent a fight. She was able to turn the incident into an important teaching moment.”
It’s not easy, Ms. Isles said, to let the students find their way to success. But she can see the results.
“It is painful to watch them take those steps, because you do just want to tell them, ‘Get, g-e-t, let’s move on,’ but you do see the progression of their writing when they have some autonomy over it,” she said.
As she works with them, she frequently smiles and gently assists as they try to put their thoughts to paper.
“She has an incredible sense of humor and patience,” Principal Emmanuel Stewart said. “And she’s not only building a rapport with her students, but also with the families … she just has a natural ability to work with and respect diverse communities as Carver becomes more and more diverse.”
Before Ms. Isles took a job at Carver, she taught in private schools. She made the switch after her first son started public school.
“I think that especially right now, public schools are getting a bad rap,” Ms. Isles said. “…I think that every kid needs a champion, and I think that it’s not fair to just assume, ‘Oh, you send your kids here or you send your kids there,’ and there’s this very clear divide between those with and those without.”
It wasn’t always Ms. Isles’ plan to become a teacher. Enraptured by the political landscape leading up to the 2000 election, she opted to study political science in college. But during the gaps in her class schedule, she found herself volunteering to read with children and help out at a nearby elementary school.
“It was just to the pass the time,” she said. “I just fell in love with it. I found myself arranging my schedule and having huge gaps to be able to get to the school. So, I thought, ‘Something’s not right here, maybe this is what I need to do.’”
That doesn’t mean she put her political science savvy to rest. As a teacher, Ms. Isles introduces children to how elections work and what activism looks like. That presented an unusual challenge this year.
“We’ll have our own election, like what should we have for snack, goldfish or popcorn. You change it and definitely make it 5-year-old friendly,” said Ms. Isles. “But this election was very different for the obvious reasons. And it was a lot of scared kids.”
Ms. Isles is mindful of the makeup of her school, where the majority of students are low-income children of color. But in her calm, measured way, she reassured them.
“It was just kind of letting them know this is how this works, and people get to vote, and people get to say who they want as the commander in chief,” she said. “But he’s not going to be the commander in chief always, or who you want is not going to be the commander and chief always.”
Ms. Isles appears to be keenly aware of her position as a role model to young children, especially to her class of mostly African-American, Latino and Samoan students. She feels passionately about ensuring students at her school “have just the same opportunities as the kids on the other side of the city.”
“I always knew urban education was where I wanted to be, being a teacher of color and having two boys of color,” Ms. Isles said. “I knew that was definitely kind of paving the path for where I was going to take this field and how I was going to navigate this field.”
A decade into her career, she has learned plenty of wisdom along the way, including how important it is to take things one day at at time.
“It’s really easy to get gobbled up in this profession, to be like ‘I’m not making a difference,’ she said. “I think that you take the little moments and you store those all up, and then they turn into the big moments. I think that if you’re going into teaching and saying, ‘I’m going to change the world in one school year,’ you’re going to be really sad, and you’re going to probably leave the profession. But if you just say, I’m just going to do what I can today, I’m just going to do what I can tomorrow, I’m just going to do what I can the next day, and you take those little wins, you can get up and come back the next day.”
Those nuggets of knowledge have made an impression on Cindy, who said she plans to become a teacher herself. “I’ve learned so much from her that sometimes I forget that I’ve only been in her classroom for about three months,” she said.
“I would totally love to be a teacher like her one day,” Cindy said.
If you love this story, share with your friends on social media and spread the word about the amazing work teachers like Ms. Isles do in our schools. Want to learn more about how you can thank a teacher in San Francisco? Visit thankateachertoday.org.