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Veteran teacher reflects on education in one of Alaska's most diverse neighborhoods

Marc Lester
Cheryl Ondra welcomed her new third grade students back to school at William Tyson Elementary School on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Ondra has been teaching in Mountain Vew for 22 years, she says, 18 of which have been at Tyson. Wednesday was the first day of school for most grades in the Anchorage School District.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Cheryl Ondra gives a tour of the school to her new third grade students at William Tyson Elementary School on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Ondra has been teaching in Mountain Vew for 22 years, she says, 18 of which have been at Tyson. Wednesday was the first day of school for most grades in the Anchorage School District.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Cheryl Ondra gives a tour of the school to her new third grade students at William Tyson Elementary School on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Ondra has been teaching in Mountain Vew for 22 years, she says, 18 of which have been at Tyson. Wednesday was the first day of school for most grades in the Anchorage School District.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Cheryl Ondra welcomed her new third grade students back to school at William Tyson Elementary School on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Ondra has been teaching in Mountain Vew for 22 years, she says, 18 of which have been at Tyson. Wednesday was the first day of school for most grades in the Anchorage School District.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News

On the first day of school, Cheryl Ondra already has her third-graders reaching for a higher level. To reward her students, she invites them to “clip up” and move clothespins with their names on them from one tier to the next on a big wall chart. By 10 a.m., most had moved from “ready to learn,” past “showing pride,” and landed on “role model.” All were closing in on “outstanding,” which the 7- and 8-year-olds would surely need a stool to achieve.

Ondra has been an elementary school teacher in Mountain View for 22 years, and has worked at William Tyson Elementary School since it opened, she said. If she hadn’t made a deep connection yet with her 19 kids on Day 1, she at least had their attention. They quietly participated in handwriting exercises, unwrapped their new math books, and walked the halls with their hands at their sides during at tour for the school of 385 students. 

During her midday break Wednesday, she talked about the unique education challenges for a teacher in one of Alaska’s most diverse neighborhoods, and what motivates her year after year. Here's an excerpt of the conversation.

What are the things you think about in the days leading up to the start of the school year? What are some of the things on your mind?

Right before the school year starts, it feels brand new again. Even if you’ve done it for 20 years in a row, you always have that apprehension and excitement, a lot like the kids have. And you feel nervous like they do, sometimes.

It’s always interesting and fun to see the camaraderie or the combination of kids and (think about) how it’ll go -- how they’ll receive you, how receptive they’ll be. I’m a pretty outgoing teacher, I think, or animated. If they haven’t had that type of teacher before, the first day of school you get that blank stare, like “I don’t know what she’s doing.” (Laughs.)

Tell me about some of your communication techniques?

We incorporate a lot of movement, because I feel to keep them engaged, it’s more than just auditory or visual, singular, by itself. I try to incorporate a lot of multi-modalities with them. They’re listening and moving… Also, too, if they have a language difficulty or a language barrier, and they see everyone is giving a hands-up or a thumbs-down, they feel more confident and they feel like they can participate and take that risk…

We also do the cheers -- “kiss your brain” or “give yourself a pat on the back.” It’s just a lot of confidence boosters, because I don’t know what their perspective of themselves as a learner was before they came to me. I want them to come here and feel like they’re capable of doing it.

I have one little guy who you may have heard a couple of times say, “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” He’s one I already know we’re going to use a lot of positive reinforcements when he’s doing what’s right, because he has that negative self-learning image. I worry about that when you’re 8.

You were saying the spoken language might be a hurdle. Can you tell me a little bit about that now and through the years?

We’ve had different influxes. We’re fortunate that we receive a lot of the immigrant population into our neighborhood through sponsorships with Catholic Social Services and whatnot. We had one year where we received the first Hmong students in the Anchorage School District. We had that influx of 60 kids who came, and we had no translators. We had no one who could speak their first language. …We still have a little bit of that barrier, but nothing quite as extensive as that first year when we had all of the kids here who couldn’t speak. But in this classroom population I have six Hmong students. Just through a few of the little things I did this morning, I can pick out already who were still having that first language for them is not English, even after having families (that have) been here 10 years or more.

And it isn’t just Hmong, right?

No. We have a huge population diversity of languages here. I’m not quite sure this year how many we have. In the past, 20, 30 languages in our school is nothing unusual. The thing that’s deceptive with the kids is they pick up conversational English very quickly. So if you interact with them just on the level of having a conversation, you feel like they know English. And then you start talking academic language to them, and you see that glaze go over their eyes…

Is that a lot of what you’re doing the first day or the first week, just assessing?

Yup. Making those observations with them.

What do you do with this information?

It’ll drive my teaching. It’ll direct how I utilize help that comes into my classroom. It’ll direct how I form small groups. Whenever the rest of the group is capable of independently working, which people will I need to pull? And it’s always changing, which is part of what I like. It’s a challenge. It’s always changing that you’re being able to meet the needs of everyone you have…

You have been at this school for 18 years, and in Mountain View for 22 years. To what do you attribute that?

Oh, gosh. Part of it is the community. I love the diversity here. I learn something everyday from these kids that come in here. Their lives are so different and diverse from how I was raised in small town America. I find that interesting and intriguing how they adapt and change and make their culture meld with the American culture that they’ve moved into.

Not all of them have moved here from a foreign country, but they all have such great stories and interesting stories. Now, at this time, I’ve built up a rapport with families who I’ve had brothers and sisters of kids. Now I’ve actually started having kids of kids I’ve taught, which makes me feel really old. (Laughs.)

You know, it’s just building that community. It feels like we are our own little town inside of a big town, and I love that. And then also, Mr. (John) Kito, the principal. He’s the only principal I’ve ever worked for. He has such passion and such drive for these families to be successful. It’s contagious.

I would think that a lot of kids coming from recent immigrant families, you interact with them at a crucial juncture in their education career, because if they’re not on the right path by third grade…

…it’s going to be tough. Because we talk about in the primary (grades), K through three, you’re learning to read. And from (grade) four up, you’re reading to learn. I take it very seriously. I’m very focused and I’m pretty hard on myself. I take it as a personal responsibility. For them to be able to succeed, I have to be able to give them what they need.

It’s hard. But it gives you a reason to come to work every single day.

Do you see kids out in the community that you had?

Yes, yesterday. We do walking visits the day before school. So we go out and go to their homes and say “I’m your teacher,” where most schools you come and read the list on the door. We go out and deliver invitations and invite them down for ice cream. That’s what we did yesterday. So, I was walking up Price Street and meeting with a couple of students, and across the street I hear, “Yo, Mrs. O!” They change a lot from being 7. The one yesterday was 22.

That’s part of why you stay here too, because you go out in the neighborhood and the people know you. They know what you’re doing for them here. It’s just a blast…

Do you think you’ll work the rest of your career at this school?

Yes, I will. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. There are fantastic schools in our district, but for me, this is where I belong.

Marc Lester can be reached at mlester@adn.com.