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Life and Work with Amanda Tooley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amanda Tooley.

Amanda, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with kids in some way. Both my parents helped run the teachings for kids at our church, and I loved helping, leading the lessons, and coming up with new ways to engage the learners.

As I exited high school, I was unsure of what direction my passion would take me but knew I wanted to travel and move away from the small town of Grass Valley in Northern California where I grew up. I had, surprisingly, not considered going straight into being an educator. I looked at getting a degree in Teaching English as a Second Language at a university further up north, to begin with, and, within that experience, found myself working with kids once again. I realized, “Oh my gosh! I need to be a teacher!” From there, I pursued my teaching credential along with Bachelor’s in Teaching English as a Second Language.

After graduating, I moved down to Southern California with my then to be husband and began teaching 3rd grade in a town called Apple Valley. I loved it and taught there for three years. I grew as an educator and leader there, and found one of my passions in education is to advocate for a love of reading and a reader’s workshop that encompasses the belief that every child is a reader! Through this work, I saw a lack of diversity in our books, a lack of discussions about creating equitable environments for our learners, and a lack of my own knowledge on what the needs of learners are. I began to dive into my own readings and research to better understand the problems I was seeing during my last year in Apple Valley.

Two years ago, My husband and I made the jump to move to Los Angeles! He is originally from the area but had moved away. He is a filmmaker, and it made sense to move closer to the work, and we both wanted to live within the city. I’ve been working for LAUSD, teaching 5th grade, for two years now, and it has been an incredible journey!

I’ve found my passion for creating an environment where learners feel valued and safe has continued to increase over the past two years. I’ve focused on creating seating options that are flexible. My room feels more like a coffee shop than a classroom as I made spaces where learners can choose their seat each day. From couches to chairs to floor seating, learners are able to be in spaces they want. I’ve, also, continued my work within literacy. One of the primary goals of the space is creating a place where students can develop into lifelong readers and have book access throughout the week. My current classroom library holds 800+ books, and I am constantly looking to add more or remove the ones that have become dated.

Going beyond the space and reading, through research and thought out curriculum, I’ve created lesson revolving around social justice issues as well as students developing an understanding of their own identity as human beings. Through this identity piece, we have utilized art to develop an understanding of ourselves and the people around us, mindfulness to focus on inner emotions, and journaling to build on the practice of expressing ourselves. Viewing curriculum and topics through the lens of social justice, learners are able to question, discuss, debate, and write about their learning, experiences, and understanding. It has allowed my students to not only feel safe, but brave and know that their voices matter and are heard.

I’ve become a lead teacher at my current site and work as a leader and advocate in multiple spaces there. I thoroughly enjoy helping others achieve success! I was a part of the strike in January, as well. This was a time where I was able to collaborate with Liz Kleinrock and do an Instagram takeover. I truly found my own voice during this time, and I am even more determined to work to bring equity and inclusion into schools and spaces. Our learners, the future generation, needs schools and educators who are willing to have tough conversations, and who are constantly advocating for them to succeed, restorative schools, and an equitable education system.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I don’t think any road can be smooth. For most journeys, growth and passion increase in the struggles. Being in education and being an educator is a constant struggle. You have to constantly advocate for yourself and for the students in your classroom. You are fighting against a system that finds ways to blame the educators rather than take a hard look at the education system itself. That alone created many of my first struggles as an educator.

Within my own journey, the biggest struggle, though, was myself. As a woman, society tells you that certain things about you are wrong or that you have to do things a certain way. A part that I took to heart was this idea of perfectionism in my work. That in order to prove that I was one of the best, my work and work ethic had to be perfect. Was this a possible goal? No way! Yet, here I was in an educational system designed for me to fail, thinking I could attain perfection. I had to go through tears, anxiety attacks, and stress on myself and body for me to finally realize I was doing something wrong.

In the last couple of years, I have worked to find, not a balance, but rather a happy medium for myself. I love my work and am passionate about it, but if I let that work take over every aspect of my life like I was allowing, I wouldn’t last. My passions in the educational field and social justice still take up a good part of my time, but, my happy medium is making sure I make time for myself, friends, and to just relax. There is still the feeling of needing to prove myself as an educator, but it has become less urgent as I have worked on making sure that I give myself the time I need to step away from the work.

To women starting their journey as an educator or starting out in any profession, I encourage you to find your happy medium. When we are determined, passionate, and focused, we tend to throw ourselves into the work full force. This can be fantastic for a time! Over time, though, this will wear us down. This will affect our future selves, and we won’t be the best we can actually be. Make sure you take moments to step away and do something you enjoy that doesn’t work, then get right back to it!

Please tell us about your work.
The past couple of years, I’ve become more focused on social justice topics, how these topics can be brought into the classroom, and how to teach to the whole child. I’ve turned to work on a curriculum that connects these topics and integrates them into multiple subjects and utilizes art and discussion. By using prompts to spark discussion or inquiry and using book clubs to discuss current and past historical events, my learners and I have been able to grow as advocates and activists within our classroom. With discussion on growth mindset, journaling, and art ranging from movement to drawing, students are able to grow as human beings, too. They are able to define themselves, identify emotions, and make changes to their overall thinking about themselves and their learning.

As an educator, I have looked to see ways to spark more engagement with students. A big part of this work is creating lessons where the classroom is ‘transformed’ into something else. We recently completed a Jurassic Park transformation! During any room transformation, learners are pushed to learn content in a new and exciting way, are engaged, and get to experience a unique way to view their learning. It makes the learning surprising and different, and I enjoy the planning and getting to play different roles depending on the transformation!

I am an advocate for allowing students to pick books, be in a space where reading is valued, and every child is seen as a reader. I work to promote books with an assortment of amazing characters, and authors who are telling powerful stories. I am currently a review for Kid Lit Review and seek to encompass what I teach. If I am asking my students to be lifelong readers, I need to one, too, and should be reading just as much!

I use Instagram to really speak out and connect with others who are doing social justice work or want to know how they can do the work in their own learning spaces. Within this platform, I share my own learning, amplify other educators, and share out mistakes and new realizations I have within my own research, teaching, and readings. I try to be as honest and open as possible. We grow when we learn from each other, and too many platforms make their classroom and life seem perfect. It is so important for me to show honesty, truth, and empathy when it comes to this profession and using my platform.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of her career?
First, congrats on beginning this new journey in your life!

Second, I would say, don’t feel like you have to do it or understand it all in one go! You got the job, You earned it. That is all you. Take that, hold that, and be proud of that. As you are learning the ropes, set small goals for yourself. Don’t try to take one giant leap. Take steps toward that end goal, and you will find yourself less stressed and more focused. Lastly, being in any new career is difficult, so be sure to give yourself permission to make mistakes. We all mess up and continue to mess up in our careers, but that doesn’t mean we stop. We learn from them, and keep going!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
@_kate_moran for main photo

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