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Meet Melissa Barclay of 59th St Elementary School in South Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Barclay.

Melissa, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I recently received the Sanford Teacher Award for Teacher of the year. It still seems unreal, as there are many amazing educators more than deserving of this humbling recognition.

My journey as an educator started long before I ever thought about teaching. As a student, I never went to school until high school. My mother did not believe in the educational system and viewed it as a waste of time. When I was very young, I forged my mother’s signature and got myself a library card. From that point until high school, I was almost entirely self-taught. When I convinced my mother to let me go to high school, I was terrified and knew I would be far behind all of my peers. I could not understand at the time, how in actuality, I was top of my class and even won national awards, one ranking me top ten percent in the country. I then graduated from college Magma Cum Laude. I have since become a wife and mother. I have four children of my own aged 4-13. Teaching my first child came so naturally and was so enjoyable that I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Now as a teacher and mother myself, I understand that the reason I did so well in school was that all of my learning was intrinsic, self-motivated, and in a fashion that interested me. I try to take this experience into my classrooms. By finding each student’s interests and aspirations, I can find ways to make my lessons relevant to them.

Current Practices: I am a mom first and a teacher second. When I send my children off to school, I am hoping that their teacher provides them with quality instruction and genuine care. So, in my class, I strive to provide quality instruction and show genuine care. I try to recognize ability, be it abstract or concrete, rather than punish disabilities. For example, I had one student who doodled through every lesson. He could not stop drawing. Instead of reprimanding him, I designed a mini-lesson on how to takes notes using diagrams and illustrations with small text captions (as opposed to all text). It was day and night. I never had a problem with him staying on task or taking notes again, and his notes were amazing. Many of my other artists in the class also implemented some of the pictorial techniques. One student I had, had Autistic like behaviors but was never formally diagnosed. He eloped from the classroom on a regular basis and seemed unable to sit still for more than a few seconds. All I did, was give him a chair that spins so he can move at his seat and place velcro under his desk so that he could get sensory input when needed. He stopped eloping and raised his reading level 3 grades in one year. I truly believe that all students have an exceptional intrinsic value far beyond their tangible contributions as future workers. I believe that regardless of a student’s sex, race, religion, or socio-economic background all students deserve to have an equal opportunity to learn, to dream about their future, to strive for higher education, and to be believed in. Because of this, I am extremely passionate about finding the interests, aspirations and skills of all of my students, so as to illuminate, encourage and foster these abilities into life long skills, passions, and societal contributions.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I teach 4th grade at an elementary school in South Los Angeles. According to the “School Accountability Report Card” (2018-19) the demographic of the school is 60.1% Hispanic, 35.9% African American, 2% White and .4% Filipino. (LAUSD 2018-19) The socio-economic status of the community is very low with Socio-economic disadvantage rate of 96.3%. As a result, the school has a high rate of students who are in foster care, who are homeless, and who live with the consequences of pre- and post-natal trauma, as well as childhood PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many of my students enter my class with factors that can impact their performance in school before they even step foot in the classroom. On average, I have eleven students per year with Individualized Education Plans (IEP). Some of the needs I have had in my classroom are: Autism, Specific Learning Disability (SLD), auditory processing deficits, visual processing deficits, Intellectual Disability (ID), Other Health Impairment (OHI), and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. You combine the mental needs with the physical struggles of inadequate resources, lack of funding, and large class sizes and a teacher’s job can be beyond overwhelming. It can be very emotional to see such need in your class and question if you have what it takes to move the students from where they are to where they need to be without all the tools you feel you need.

Please tell us about 59th St Elementary School.
I am most well known for all the events and opportunities that I bring to my school.

Overcoming Struggles: The are two parts to this: funding, and classroom environment.

With regard to the classroom environment, I try to adapt my lessons to accommodate the unique needs of each student. Most students need opportunities to work together as a group and learn to support each other. One strategy that has proved successful is to create small non-homogeneous groups of 4-5. In these groups, each student will have a different responsibility based on their unique strength and comfort level. Over time I rotate the roles and groups so as to create opportunities for varied peer interaction, making sure that I am creating and encouraging a positive classroom environment. I refer to the class as a family who works to support each other. My most well know saying compares our class to a family BBQ.

For the most part, we all get along, but everyone has the one uncle or Aunt they can’t stand, yet, you still show them respect. My class is like that, you don’t have to like everyone, but you need to treat everyone with respect. I have no tolerance for bullying or name calling. When I call on students to answer questions, I never say they are wrong, I will say, “Let’s try again, or Let’s look a little closer…” I praise students who are correct and those who are not. We are all learning together and can learn more from mistakes sometimes than right answers. I never make an example out of a student who gets something wrong. In fact, I make it a regular practice to purposely mess up in front of the class and let a student point it out. By showing appreciation for their help and not embarrassment, I am modeling that it is ok to make mistakes and as a class, we will support each other.

Because of funding challenges, I spend summers writing grants and canvassing neighborhoods to raise money for school events. The money I raise goes to school-wide events—not just my own class. I manage to secure about 14 field trips a year for the 4th and 5th grade students that are directly tied to the instruction in the classroom—deepening their learning and providing opportunities for students to travel outside of the immediate community. I also applied for and secured a grant supported Physical Education program that provides an itinerant PE Teacher and materials for two years at our school. Each year a selection of classrooms participate in the program; teachers learn fun and effective strategies to teach physical education in a way that authentically teaches students about health and fitness.

This past year, 3rd–5th grade students participated in a program in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that took them to the museum after school one day a week for a month to learn about art and then re-create it. With the support of my colleagues, I established several free after-school clubs open to all students. The clubs, taught by teachers at our school included art, DIY, and gardening. I partner with AMAZING community members like Home Depot and Target that ALWAYS rise to the occasion and support our school with much-needed supplies. Last fall, I secured the Mobile Archaeology Experience through the Natural History Museum which was able to accommodate nearly every student in the school.

I am currently working with a colleague to create a technology room at the school, equipped with 3D printers, green screens, computers, and a maker space that will be accessible to all teachers and their classes. Each school year I organize two major events—an Earth Day celebration and Career Day—which turn our campus into a science and career wonderland. For each event, students rotate among stations engaging in hands on and educational fun related to the theme of the event.

To be clear, however, I do not accomplish these things alone. I am privileged to have strong support from an amazing principal and colleagues—and lucky enough to have a patient husband and children. I am part of an amazing team that inspires and supports me to continue learning, growing, and providing the best possible learning experience for students at our school!

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
If I had to start over, the only thing I would change is to try to find more time for my own family. I always joke that during the school year, I am a wonderful teacher but a horrible wife and mother. I put my heart and soul into my school and it often comes at the expense of my own family. Either literally because I spend way more than I can afford to on my class (My kids have never been to Disneyland because I can not afford it but I spend at least $100 a month on my class), or figuratively with the time requirements. All that I do requires planning and that means that I spend many weekends and late nights on the computer, researching, writing, and planning. However, I try to make it up to them over the summer. That is their time.

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