The Rip Post                    Interview


Dr. Jeannine Mendoza, Los Angeles Teacher
Dr. Jeannine Mendoza is somewhat of a rarity, a teacher who never burns out---despite cutbacks, MTV-hammered kids, paltry school supplies, etc. She has been at it for 27 years, and found that she likes kindergarten teaching best.

Q: WHAT IS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION ACTUALLY DOING FOR EDUCATION? WHAT EVIDENCE DO YOU SEE OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION POLICY TO PUT EDUCATION FOREMOST?

MENDOZA: On 1/8/02, Bush signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Act of 2001, which reauthorized an existing federal school program.  This reauthorization has the title “No Child Left Behind”.  This act makes schools accountable for student learning by using proven educational methods.  This act seeks to provide highly qualified teachers for all students everywhere in our nation.  All of this is commendable except that very little money so far has been earmarked by the current administration to put these reforms into effect.

WHY DID YOU BECOME A TEACHER?

MENDOZA: I like watching kids learn.  When a student learns to read or realizes where they are standing in relation to the other planets, or understands what two colors make purple, I get extremely gratified.  I have had many “aha!” moments with kids.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU TAUGHT, WHAT GRADES, WHERE, WHEN, ETC.

MENDOZA: I began teaching in 1977 in Lynwood, California. I taught grades 2,3 and 4.   After six years, I started at Hobart Blvd. Elementary where I taught grades pre-k, Kindergarten and first grade.  I taught there until 1993.  I began at Charnock in 1993 where I have only taught Kindergarten.   

WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF TEACHING FOR YOU?

MENDOZA: Making certain you reach all students all the time. Or at least part of the time.

WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF TEACHING IN THE LAUSD?

MENDOZA: Paperwork.  Assessments.  Mindless bean counting of test results.   Keeping up with pacing plans that may or may not be appropriate with individual classes. Filling out forms that never get read.  

WHAT HAS THE LAUSD DONE RIGHT?

MENDOZA: Even though I find the Open Court Reading program to be uncreative and boring, at least LAUSD provided thorough training to all teachers in all the minidistricts.

WHAT DOES THE LAUSD NEED TO DO BETTER?

MENDOZA: Stop using a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching reading.
Make sure all schools have adequate supplies and clean bathrooms for all students and personnel, before the fat cats downtown get new carpeting and personal restrooms for themselves.
Make sure all schools have safe, attractive places to play and eat lunch.
Make sure all school buildings are safe, attractive and adequate.

YOU COME FROM MEXICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE, YET YOU ACTUALLY HAD TO STUDY SPANISH IN ORDER TO BECOME FLUENT, WHICH GAVE YOU A GREAT ADVANTAGE IN THE CLASSROOM. IS THAT WHY YOU DID IT?

MENDOZA: Before I started teaching elementary school, I worked at an MAOF (Mexican-American Opportunity Foundation) child center in East L.A.  that provided daycare and after school care.  It was a real eye opener for me. I realized how much I needed to learn Spanish and enrolled at UCLA Extension, which had and still has great language classes.  On a personal level, learning Spanish helped me understand my culture and heritage.

IS BILINGUAL EDUCATION A GOOD THING?

MENDOZA: Generally yes.  It depends on the individual school, though.  If you have a large population of ELLs (English Language Learners) and not many EOs (English only students who can model the language for the ELLs) bilingual education is the way to go.

DECADE AFTER DECADE, ALL YOU HEAR FROM LAUSD TEACHERS ARE HORROR STORIES ABOUT: NOT ENOUGH SUPPLIES, CUTBACKS AND MORE CUTBACKS, AIR CONDITIONING THAT DOESN'T WORK, BEING REQUIRED TO MAKE COMMENTS ON REPORT CARDS TAKEN FROM PREPARED SCRIPTS(!), ETC.  IS THIS AN UNFAIR IMAGE, OR TRUE?

MENDOZA: Depends on the school.  Hobart was a terrific school and still is thanks to the good working relationship of the administration and teachers.  And Hobart is a large urban school in an economically challenged area that is also a port of entry for many new, non-English speaking immigrants.

Everyone is always talking about getting quality teachers into the inner city and at hard-to-staff schools.  It has always been my belief that if you pay them they will come.  If LAUSD offered extra money, say 10K or 15K extra a year to commit to teaching in a tough area for several years, they would be inundated with takers.   When you get experienced, highly qualified and motivated teachers, the status quo would be raised at these hard-to-staff schools resulting in better teaching and higher achievement. 

ONE OF MY OLD TEACHERS SAID THAT STUDENTS, FOR THE MOST PART, STOPPED THINKING AND ENGAGING IN THE CLASSROOM IN THE EARLY '70S. THAT THEY ALL SEEMED TO WATCH TEACHERS THE SAME WAY THEY WATCH TELEVISION---A PASSIVE EXPERIENCE. DO YOU FIND THIS TRUE? OR DOES IT REALLY TAKE HOLD IN THE LATER GRADES? WHAT DO YOU HEAR FROM COLLEAGUES?

MENDOZA: One of the reasons that I teach Kindergarten and work mostly with primary students is because they are still learning through doing.  They are not into Gameboys yet.  This lasts until maybe second grade.  I think you can always reach kids, especially young ones.  It can be done, but as they get older it requires more effort. Colleagues of upper grades complain that students tune out. But the more gifted teachers connect through the strength of their personalities or through presenting material in an enthusiastic manner.  Most teachers have a passion for a certain subject and pass on that passion to the kids they teach.

WHAT WAS YOUR BEST DAY AS A TEACHER---OR ONE OF THEM, ANYWAY? AND YOUR WORST? 

MENDOZA: Most days are good days.  The best days are when kids master something.   All of a sudden they can read words, or tell time or count accurately.  There have been so many good days that “best” days are hard to determine.   Culmination days (the last day when we have a ceremony) are extremely gratifying because you realize you took a group of youngsters, babies really, and now they can read easy books, listen to each other, listen to stories, write a little, treat each other with respect, tie their shoes, count to one hundred and skip.  It is a great day.

Worst days are days when you find out a kid you had has fallen behind or is in trouble because of some trauma, a divorce, illness, moving away, etc.   A student was burned in a kitchen accident and I visited him at Children’s Hospital, put on a happy face and later cried out in the hall for ten minutes.  When your kids suffer, you suffer.

YOU ARE A DOCTOR OF EXACTLY WHAT, AND WHY DID YOU PURSUE YOUR PHD? WHEN ONE THINKS OF KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS, ONE DOESN'T READILY THINK OF GETTING A PHD IN ORDER TO FILL THE JOB.

MENDOZA:  have an Ed.D from UCLA in Education, specializing in curriculum.  I wanted to be a mover and a shaker years ago.  Then I realized I really didn’t want to leave the classroom.   I realized that you could change the world one classroom at a time.  Pursuing the Ed.D gave me a “big picture” view of education and it helped me realize what an important part I play in the lives of children.   Besides, once I reach the age when I can’t keep up with the kids, I can teach at the college level.

IF CUTBACKS FORCED YOU TO FOCUS ON ONLY ONE EXTRA-CURRICULAR SUBJECT IN SCHOOL, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?

MENDOZA: I would have to say music because it has a uniting effect on kids no matter what their background might be.

YOU ARE NOT ONLY UP AGAINST THE USUAL PROBLEMS THAT TEACHERS FACE, BUT YOU ARE UP AGAINST THE TYRANNY OF MASS-MEDIA-FUELED POPULAR CULTURE. KIDS ARE BRAINWASHED FROM AN EARLY AGE WITH A CULTURE OF MATERIALISM, SEX, VIOLENCE, AND SELF-ADORATION. HOW MUCH DAMAGE HAVE YOU FOUND, AND HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THIS?

MENDOZA: I have three simple rules: Follow directions.  Talk nicely to one another.   Keep your hands and feet to yourself. 
If you use offensive language or hit others, you will find yourself spending recess on the bench.  If you are disrespectful of others, you will not be allowed in the group for a while.  Kids understand that they have to follow the rules in order to participate in class.  The materialistic part is harder to deal with, but all children get to share a personal item once a week and although some kids bring in expensive toys that all the kids covet, other students bring in baby photos, cultural items, souvenirs and relatively inexpensive interesting items.  Once a child brought in two old, preserved foxes that had once trimmed a coat.  She captivated everyone when she brought it out of the paper bag.
Another technique I use is to have a different student be the class leader every day.   This is not based on merit nor should it be. All students need to be the center of attention every once in a while, whether or not they deserve it.  When a child is the class leader or Busy Bee as we call it, he/she gets to lead the pledge, take the attendance to the office, pick others for different activities, be the line leader, ring the bell and pass out homework.  The kids love it.  And my ELLs get to practice English and develop self-confidence.

With the advent of rap music and the accompanying popular culture, a loss of respect for others occurred.  However in my classroom, disrespect will not be tolerated.   Kids learn quickly that they must act a certain way at school.  Having to change your behavior to suit the context is not hard for five year olds to understand.  

YOU SEEM AN OPTIMIST. DO YOU FIND YOURSELF DAUNTED AT TIMES, IN THE CLASSROOM?

MENDOZA: Sometimes situations arise that are daunting, but more often than not I am rewarded by the progress my students make or by the way a student handles a tough situation. A parent or other adult usually causes these tough situations.  I’m talking about drug abuse, alcoholism, homelessness, divorce, mental illness etc.  It is difficult to watch blameless students get caught up in adult problems.  Luckily it doesn’t happen too frequently.

BACK TO PAGE ONE


2004 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.