“What Do We Do With Ivan?”: A Teaching Story

Question: How has your experience teaching ESL and special needs students informed your administrative career?

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Andres Alonso:  You know, I’ll just tell you about a moment of frustration.  I walked into the classroom without ever having had an education course.  Had been a lawyer, sort of fell into this environment where I was running a program and I was teaching.  And I had - there were emotionally disturbed adolescents, age 11 through 14, and because it was self-contained settings, you had kids ranging from 11 years old to 14.  The kid who was completely in grade level to the kid who didn’t read.

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And there's a kid that I’ll always remember.  His name was Ivan.  Bright, bright, bright.  Right now, I mean, I know that this is a kid who was completely dyslexic.  Nobody ever diagnosed what he had and he ended up in a classroom for emotionally disturbed kids.  There was nothing emotionally disturbed about this kid.  He just couldn’t function in a school and nobody had figured out a way to approach him.  So, I remember going to my principal, a woman named Wilma ****, and this must have happened within the first month that I was a teacher.  And basically reaching out to her and just saying, “You know what, I just don’t know how to teach this kid.  I don’t know how to teach Ivan.  I sit with him every single day for 45 minutes.  Figure out a way to give him 45 minutes of one on one instruction.  I come back the next day, it’s like we’ve done nothing the day before.”  And I always remember her telling me sort of, like, there's a key.  Just looking for the - just keep looking for the key.  Keep looking for the key.  She was a great influence.

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So, when I think of classrooms and think of kids, I always think of that kid and that name.  It’s a very important thing for me.  I mean, this idea of, “What do we do with Ivan, right?”  And also that idea that you might have tried 35 things, but there's a key that you haven’t found.  And of course, it informs the way that I think, because I was so unprepared and the systems were not in place back then.  The knowledge might not have been in place.  While today, I think that we have - in places that have gotten their act together, they are just different ways of insuring that somebody who walks into a classroom without the necessary knowledge gains the hooks, is able to have the kinds of conversations so that they don’t walk into a room and say, “I just don’t know how to do this.” 

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So, that’s very much at the core of how I see the work.  I think that there is a key and I think that we all benefit from saying sometimes, “I just have no clue how to approach this.”  I think adults have a hard time with that.

Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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An incident from early in his teaching career taught Andres Alonso to "keep looking for the key" to each student’s learning style.