I only left Monarch because I needed the time to complete my student teaching. After having been at this unique school for three years, I wanted to branch out to “regular” public schools, so I signed up to do my student teaching in East San Diego County schools. They knew my history with Monarch, and asked if I’d like to work with their at-risk classroom at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley. I taught one semester of Geography there, and learned so many things about how giant schools are operated compared to small schools, and about working with at-risk kids in a more traditional setting. At Monarch, the school worked with partner agencies to ensure all the students had 2-3 meals a day, clothes, shoes, basic health clinic access, etc., as well as school supplies, so there were never any excuses and the focus was always holistic. In a more traditional system, many of these same problems go unnoticed, unless a family is brave enough to speak up and ask for help. It taught me that traditional schools could be doing more to help their students, because these home issues have a huge impact on their ability to achieve in school.
After student teaching at Mount Miguel, I had to do a semester in middle school and was assigned to La Mesa Middle School, in a GATE class as well as a general ed class. The thing that surprised me most about the GATE class was that many of my strategies for at-risk students were very much needed with the gifted students. They demanded clear expectations, a highly structured classroom that still allowed creativity, and consistency from the teachers and staff. This reinforced my beliefs that all students have the same essential needs and can excel in school given the proper supports.
After completing my credential I substituted for a year before returning to Monarch as a long-term substitute which ended up lasting an entire school year. I served as their 6th and 7th grade teacher, which was challenging to have to teach all subjects for two grades, but it was by far my most rewarding position yet. I still truly feel my passion is with middle school students. At that point in their life they are eager for knowledge beyond the basics of elementary school, and they are ready to do deeper thinking, yet they still have the imagination and creativity of childhood that makes learning really fun and exciting. I’ve already said what a magical place Monarch School is, and it was there I feel like I had the most support and therefore the most impact on the lives and education of those students and families.
Unfortunately I could not stay, as I was offered a contract at another school and after some soul searching decided to take the job. It was within the same district, and still with at-risk students, but in this case the most dire circumstances. I have worked for the last four years in 2 different juvenile hall institutions, with high school boys of all ages, grades, and ability levels. It has been exciting and rewarding at times, and frustrating at times. This is a situation where you have to be flexible and control what you can while letting little things go. It takes tough skin sometimes, but when you can break through to one of these kids and see them years later out of trouble it makes it all worth it. When I came in to the institutions it was very controlled and punitive, but over the last 4 years I have seen really hopeful changes that have opened up new doors and opportunities to our boys that they would have never had before. I believe that juvenile hall should be the perfect place for self-reflection and change, with little outside distractions, health coverage, food and shelter provided, no drug or alcohol temptations combined with counseling services available. However it greatly depends on the mission put forth by leadership and the actions of the staff and teachers “on the front lines”. The attitude is shifting to more restorative and supportive, and I am proud to be a part of this era of change.