Q&A With Contributing Writer Vanessa Heller

Vanessa Heller

Where and how did you grow up?

While I lived in Northern California for a bit as a toddler, I mainly grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley. I was living in the era of the “Valley Girl”, a teen in the 80s, and I was a “totally rad” Valley Girl. I attended one of the largest school districts in the country with an average of 40 students per class. It was an educational model of ‘sink or swim’ and I was a skilled swimmer. Outside of school, I simply hung out until I had to be home. We played outside, walked to the mall to hang out for hours, did things we shouldn’t have, and had fun on our own. I had no supervision but I was pretty responsible … at least I had the grades to prove it.

I was raised in a single-parent household and have no siblings. While we moved constantly due to financial reasons, I stayed at the same school for continuity. I was what you call a “latch-key kid” – on my own after school until my mother returned from work at night. As an only child, I was very comfortable on my own. I did as I pleased after school … whether that was good or bad, lol.

Were you a great student? Tell us about your K-12 education.

I was! Until I wasn’t.

I was a bright child, eager to learn. I was raised in a literate environment – a family of readers. My Grandma Betty, who lived in New Jersey, would send me books as gifts. They were always unusual reads, and I was so excited to receive these surprises in the mail.  To this day, Maurice Sendak is one of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that Sendak was Jewish and directly impacted by the Holocaust. Being raised Jewish yet disconnected from my own ancestry for a variety of reasons, this gift of reading from my grandmother became all the more special as I connected my Grandma Betty’s parents fleeing Russia on foot to Poland and eventually migrating to the U.S. Reading has always been a freeing experience and I am fortunate to have been raised surrounded by a love for reading and knowing.

What was your favorite subject?

My truly favorite subject was Independent Reading Time… but back in the day that was not a thing. My independent reading time was the great deal of time I spent reading my book under my desk while the teacher was lecturing! I was an avid reader and school was pretty dull most of the time.

My favorite subject that I paid attention to was, and still is, social studies. Social studies is about people and how they interact with each other, with their environment, with their circumstances. Human nature fascinates me and history provides me the context to take a deep look at the choices we’ve made – good or bad – and the choices we continue to make. I am also fascinated at who had/has the power to choose and who does not – how suppression and oppression impacts us as a collective society. As a teacher of ancient history, the students and I take a look at the patterns that repeat themselves over millennia, how groups treat each other when they interact, and how change can produce growth or conflict. To know one’s history – and the history of others – is to know ourselves. And to do this is how we move forward together.

What does inequity look like in your district?

Our district includes three elementary schools, one middle school, one comprehensive high school, one continuation high school, one independent study school, and a preschool/pre-Kinder program. Our enrollment is approximately 4,500 students. Our schools are well-known for their academic excellence where 99.8% met our high school graduation requirements (20-21).

Inequity in our schools may not look like the divide in other districts with a Black – White or Hispanic – White dichotomy. We are a “district of choice” which means that families within our boundaries are automatically enrolled, while anyone outside of our district enrolls through a lottery process.

Privilege – one aspect being the ability to transport one’s child to our district, is key. We cater to mostly middle-upper class families within our county and from the adjacent county as well. We do not offer transportation.

Inequity in our schools may not look like the divide in other districts. At my school alone, our students are approximately 50% and 30% Asian – mostly Indian, with only 1% of students who are Black. While Southern California has a large Hispanic population, our school only enrolls 9%. We are linguistically diverse however, with many of our students being bilingual or multilingual. Other districts often accuse us of “stealing” their brightest and Whitest students.

If we see inequities in the classroom, it is that more males receive Special Ed services and predominantly White and Asian students in our gifted and talented (GATE) program. About 14% of our district population is identified as GATE, which is above the national average.

What steps are you taking to address inequity?

The benefit of working in such a small district is that you can take on many roles that intersect and have a wide-spread impact. My specific focus is in gifted and talented education (GATE), but this intersects with my work as a Diversity and Equity Coordinator as well. GATE as a special education area, is historically underfunded or simply not funded – an inequity in itself.

As a GATE coordinator, I work tirelessly to make sure our identification process truly reflects the multiple measures we advertise and is accessible to all students. Many students are mis-identified as GATE because they have the luxury of tutors, academic camps, and extracurriculars – and their parents push for their high achievement to be classified as gifted. For gifted children without access to these privileges, we are ignoring our duty to reach and teach all children. I work with admin and staff to teach in ways that bring out a child’s gifts and talents.

Last year I successfully pushed for a universal screener which will be implemented for the first time next month. Instead of parents in the know pushing their way through the identification process, we are hoping that screening all students, as well as curating models of gifted level work to help teachers understand what giftedness looks like, will help us better identify and serve students from all populations. Meanwhile I continue to  work with administration and staff on differentiation and GATE best practices.

As the middle level Diversity and Equity Coordinator, I work on several committees, one of those being the Policy and Personnel Committee. We have widened our hiring scope, updated our interview questions to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and clarified and expanded policies regarding DEI. Regarding classroom practices, I help to create and curate resources and curricula K-12, and host staff book and article clubs, student groups, and provide professional development.

What are the demographics and backgrounds of your students?

At my school alone, our students are approximately 50% and 30% Asian – mostly Indian, with only 1% of students who are Black. While Southern California has a large Hispanic population, our school only enrolls 9%. We are linguistically diverse however, with many of our students being bilingual or multilingual. In my class alone, I know students speak English as well as Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Tagalog, as well as many Indian languages (Punjabi, Telugu, Hindi, etc). We share words and sayings in our many languages, enjoying the richness this brings to our classroom community.

Your job is not easy —why do you do what you do?

My job as an educator is not easy, but it is not hard either. Teaching is fun, creative, frustrating, unpredictable, tedious, illogical, time-intensive, heart-breaking, rewarding … there are so many better adjectives to describe being an educator than “not easy.” And I think that this job is appealing to me because it is so hard to pin down teaching under one descriptor. I bore easily, so this job with its constant ups and downs keeps it exciting, the same puzzle with ever-changing pieces. Teaching demands creativity within a given structure, which appeals to me. I crave parameters but demand choice and creativity. I could not and would not work at a school that required me to teach the same thing on the same day that other teachers are teaching. I blew up my own grade level team when I was first hired at my current site, because the binders of curriculum I was handed on my first day were promptly set aside, only to be used as a reference and then eventually abandoned altogether.

I do what I do because it suits me AND it seems to work well for my students. I teach the way I wish I would have been taught. I participate in education as a staff member who sees the systemic hypocrisies, weak areas, and injustices, and work to build a better system for students and for staff. Being an educator is not easy; it is not hard. Being an educator is a challenge.

What advice would you give to a new teacher at your school or district?

I have had the good fortune to be a cooperating/master teacher to many student teachers and first-year teachers, as well as work alongside those new to the profession. I always advise the new folk to watch and learn. Observation and listening are key. Each site is its own ecosystem with various habitats at each grade level. School culture, administrative styles, colleagues’ personalities – all factor into a new teacher’s experience at a site. When I have a new colleague, I always open my classroom to them – please observe me anytime and ask about anything. They have my cell and can run in my room to hide, or cry, or rejoice.

A new teacher is not only working with students for the first time, but also needs to know the simple things – where is the bathroom? Where do I park? How do I work the stupid copy machine??? The new teacher needs to be introduced to others and I enjoy helping that new teacher find her people on site. Personal invitations to conferences and even happy hours never hurt either.

But I think the most important advice I can impart to a person new to this profession is to give oneself time and grace – time to figure out your teaching style and who you are as a teacher as far as beliefs and practices. In my teaching credential program, I spent a great deal of time observing experienced teachers. I observed teachers in grades K-2; they were so gentle and quiet, always calm. I have never been any of things things ever! How would I contort myself to that model of an elementary teacher?

Well I didn’t – but it took me time to realize that my style of teaching is just as good – just not the same as others. Being authentic in one’s approach to teaching students is key. A new teacher needs to grant themself the grace to let that naturalness emerge over time and experience.

I remember one student teacher – who is a dear friend to this day. I was her master teacher for our 4th grade class. She was quiet, calm, and so collected; I am a joke-teller and tend to break out in song and dance. I feared she might bore the kids…. But I observed her in action. The students were indeed engaged, just engaged differently than they were with me. New teachers do not need to emulate anyone but themselves. As an experienced teacher, I am not a model to copy, but an example to take note of. I have kept in touch with many of my student teachers – now educators and administrators across the state. They are very much their own people, benefiting students in their own wonderful ways.

Looking 10 years into the future, what would you hope to achieve in education?

In the next ten years I intend to leave my educational setting better than I found it, as the saying goes.

I intend to have a well-rounded, smoothly running district-wide GATE program run through a differentiated model of delivery and accessible to all students. Every teacher will be well trained, if not certified, to teach students with gifts and talents. Students will have their strengths, areas of growth, and likes/dislikes screened and assessed so teachers can design learning experiences accordingly. Teaching itself will be inquiry-based with a focus on asking deep questions and solving real problems. Community service will be a core part of academics. There will not be a prescribed, one size fits all curriculum, but a curation of texts and lessons in multimedia formats and at a variety of reading levels. All students will have access to learning at their level of interest and need through differentiated instruction but also in how each student demonstrates their understanding.

Our staff will be more diverse – in background and abilities/talents. Everyone’s expertise will not only be honored but shared with others through Communities of Practice and professional development opportunities.

The hiring policies emphasizing diversity and excellence that we are developing now will be running smoothly years from now. Our student population will be even more diverse in background, languages, and the neighborhoods we draw from. We have solved the transportation problem for our out-of-district students who choose to attend our schools, providing low-cost or no-cost ways for families to access our excellent learning opportunities.

Students and staff will be a part of maintaining a sense of community across sites. Teachers’ voices will be listened to and valued and our work will be included in the running of the district. The work across committees I play a part in now – Diversity & Equity, Wellness/SEL, GATE to name a few – will see students and staff interacting positively and with respect.

What we say in the name of community is what we do.

What are the critical skills and competencies students need to develop for success in life?

  • Critical literacies
  • authentic inquiry
  • Balanced literacy approach > skills and concepts
  • Executive function skills
  • Multiple measures of assessment > deemphasize testing as the only way to measure a child’s competence

Ms. Heller is a contributing writer to the book, Teaching for Racial Equity: Becoming Interrupters (Stenhouse, 2022) and regularly presents best practices in gifted education and authentic inquiry throughout the U.S. In her 25th year of teaching, Ms. Heller has both elementary and middle school experience. She holds a multiple subject credential, a reading specialist credential, a masters degree in Language and Literacy, and a BA in Ethnic Studies. She teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies, serves as a site Gifted Education Coordinator and her district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion middle school Coordinator. Ms. Heller has also served as the Director of the Oak Park Inquiry Institute, English Department Chair, district Peer Coach, and district Technology Innovator. You can reach Ms. Heller on Twitter at @Hell2Teach.

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