In an era where headlines are too frequently grabbed by those who claim to know what’s wrong with America’s schools and too few individuals are willing to commit to making things right, Abigail Chandler, M.A. Education ’99, the 2011 Washington state regional “Teacher of the Year,” stands out as one of those rare people who fall into the latter category.
Chandler has spent much of her adult life teaching children the essential skill of reading. She has taught in the elementary school at Chief Leschi Schools for 16 years as a kindergarten and second grade teacher, instructional coach for reading and currently early childhood education director. The 200,000-square-foot school is one of the largest Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools constructed in the nation.
One of the reasons Chandler was selected as one of ten regional “Teachers of the Year” by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was because she puts relationships first, whether with students, colleagues or parents. A fellow instructional coach describes Chandler as one of the most amazing educators she has ever met. “She has committed her life to improving and impacting the way Native American children and their families view education with complete cultural competency.”
When she first came to the Chief Leschi Schools, Chandler was entering an alternative school that had been cobbled together by parents and community members who were concerned about the low-graduation rates for Native American students. Her first challenge however, was not just raising grades, but earning trust.
“Historically, Native Americans were taken from their homes and sent to school as part of the assimilation process. The goal was to ‘teach the Indian out’ of the children as a means of ‘civilizing’ them. The first thing I needed to do was show them my commitment to sticking around when so many teachers had quickly come and gone.”
Along with the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic, Chandler adheres to three more: relationships, rigor and relevance. To bridge that initial gap of trust, she focused on building relationships. “When I was new to the community and they didn’t know me,” she notes. “I had to demonstrate myself and build relationships with the kids. I came in as an outsider. I wasn’t a member of a tribe and was new to the community. The community was asking, ‘Is she going to commit to us? Is she going to be here for the long-haul?’
“At Chief Leschi, community events are important. I regularly attend sports games, tribal dinners, cultural drum and dance groups, and pow-wows to show not only the students, but also the parents, that I am continuously committed to bettering the entire community.”
Building relationships is not a single goal in its own right. Chandler also values academic rigor and relevance. “Good education is an opportunity to feel successful, but that feeling must be held alongside an expectation of excellence. When we first started with the Reading First grant, it forced us to identify academic deficits. That sense of rigor led us to, in just the first couple years, some fairly drastic improvement in K-3 reading. So, after a time, we transferred those models into math as well.”
The high standards of rigor lead naturally into the concept of relevance. “When I am thinking about the programs that I’m working on, I am always thinking ‘is this relevant?’ The traditional school model was started during a whole different era. Now, information is changing on a daily basis,” she says.
Chandler was drawn to AUS for two main reasons. First, was the university’s flexibility and convenience. “I was working full time and starting a family so entering a local program was important to me.” Second, she valued the focus and values of an AUS education. “The action-based research projects at the university were directly related to the classroom where I was working every day. It was the perfect meeting of theory and practice. Also, we were able to have all four of Chief Leschi’s kindergarten teachers working as a team while getting our master’s degrees together.
“In addition, Education professor Ed Mikel was a great advisor, teacher, and supporter asI worked through my master’s program and research project. I’ve often reflected back on my courses at AUS and incorporated those experiences and knowledge into furthering my education, such as getting my administrative credentials.”
After being a teacher, instructional coach and now the school’s early childhood education director, she finds that her relationship-building skills are more important than ever in her new role. She now coordinates four different programs including the Puyallup Tribal Preschool, Family and Child Education (FACE), the Chief Leschi Childcare Center and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).
For those individuals like Abigail Chandler, transforming education is not about looking back but rather, looking forward. It’s not just about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also relationships, rigor and relevance. “Without hitting all six Rs, it is hard to be successful,” she concludes.
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