Inspirational Educators: Denise Ivelich – Working with Teenagers is Never Boring

How long have you been teaching?

12 years – Currently at Vista High School. (Northern San Diego County)

Why did you choose to teaching as a career?

I’ve wanted to teach as long as I can remember. I suppose this is due in part to my wonderful elementary school teachers, and aside from that, I’ve always loved learning. I realized in college that my strengths are reading and writing, so working with high school students and specializing in the English Language Arts suits me quite well. Teaching is a highly creative, intellectually demanding profession; these are both reasons that compelled me to do it. Every day is exciting and working with teenagers is never, ever boring.

Many people question if our current education system is working. What do you think?

This simple question has an extremely complicated and multi-layered answer. I’ll try to be brief: I think our current education system is working for some people. The problem is that it needs updating to match twenty-first-century demands for students of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. It’s easy for people to dismiss the system as “broken,” but the reality is that there are amazing things happening in today’s classrooms, thanks to conscientious and creative teachers and administrators in spite of its flaws.

What would you like to see being taught in our classrooms?

Funny enough, I asked my seniors this same question. Based on what my students told me, I’d like to see “Real Life 101” taught in school – how to do laundry, how to cook five simple but nutritious meals, how to advocate for yourself, how to write a professional email, etc.. Character Education/Citizenship already exists in schools, but I think “How to be a Decent Human Being 101” should be a required course for every student, especially given the current political climate of the United States.

Share your proudest teacher moment.

A former student recently told me that I had played a huge role in helping him find his voice and confidence as a young adult. As a sophomore, he wanted out of my class and accused me of picking on him, thinking I had already judged him as a stupid, trouble-making black kid. But he soon realized why I gave him more attention than some of his peers. I truly saw a diamond in the rough. He has since thanked me for “picking” on him — for working with him on vocabulary during lunch, for helping him organize his ideas into well-written essays, and for taking an interest in his life. We talked for hours about the racism he encountered in the highly affluent, white public schools he had attended his whole life, and we talked about what he could do to make a change. My hope was to empower him with knowledge and communication skills, and like I knew he would, he has matured into a beautiful soul, capable of teaching, leading, and influencing others.

What is the most important message about teaching that you would like People to know?

The teacher – the professional orchestrating the child’s learning experience – is the single most important and effective tool in public education and should be treated as such.

Yosemite Field Trip

How can parents and Educators work together to better to ensure children are successful?

As with any relationship, communication is key. They way in which parents and educators communicate can be complicated, and it depends entirely on the community. For example, many of my students’ parents do not speak English, they work long hours, or they don’t know how to access the class website or check email. Face to face meetings are very important, but finding the time to do them is also complicated. If I had total control of the situation, I would invite parents into the classroom every single day. I want them present to help me assess their children’s progress. I would invite parents to join important discussions that our reading lends itself to. My advice to parents is this — reach out as often as you can to the teacher(s), in whatever way you can, to find out how your child is doing and to ask how you can help contribute to your child’s education. Even just providing a little context for the student helps me personalize his or her learning experience.

What is the most important educational gift parents can provide for their children to help them be successful learners?

Do two very important things — read to your children when they are young and let them see you grapple with difficult problems.

Poetry Coffee House

Who is most Inspirational Teacher you’ve had? Why?

I’ve had so many inspirational teachers, but Ms. Greenwald, my third-grade teacher, will always be extra special because of her obvious love of teaching, the way she fostered my love of writing, and her selfless dedication to helping children. Rest in peace, Ms. Greenwald.

How many hours a week do you spend completing all of your duties related to your job. Are there any extra duties that people may find surprising or not consider that you have to complete?

Before I had a child, my entire life was teaching. The bells ring at 7:30 am – 2:30 pm, but the reality of a teacher’s job is that ALL of the preparatory work such as grading, planning, reading, emailing, etc. is like a part-time job outside of school hours. I easily spend 20 hours/week on top of the school day, doing what it takes to be an effective teacher.

It may surprise people that it takes 25+ minutes per paper if I quickly read and thoroughly comment on a student’s essay. Because I have 165+ students, I simply cannot do that for every writing assignment. Instead, I’ll spend 5-10 minutes per paper. If schools had to pay teachers overtime for grading, I’d be a millionaire. This is also why I hate when people envy my summers off. If they had to work the kind of hours I work nine months out of the year, they’d need a few months to recover, too!

Have you ever paid for supplies for your classroom?

Of course… who hasn’t? Here’s the deal: the school gives us a budget (~$80/year) with which we can order supplies from the district warehouse, but those supplies sometimes take weeks to arrive and I need supplies right away. Some students show up to school with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs.We’re expected to have extra supplies in our room at all times. The warehouse money is enough to provide most of what I need for the year, but there are some supplies that I will just buy out of pocket to save myself from a headache later on. For example, I prefer to buy Kleenex tissues from Costco in the beginning of the year just to avoid students using the bathroom every few minutes “to get a tissue.” Also, I choose to cough up $50 at Staples to buy three class sets of bound notebooks for my freshmen. These notebooks aren’t carried at the district supplies warehouse and I can’t request students to get their own. I can get the notebooks on sale for 50 cents each, a small price to pay to make sure my freshmen have sturdy notebooks where I’ll teach them how to organize every annotation, assignment, and journal entry all year long. The other supplies I’ve bought out of pocket over the years are art supplies for random projects. Students will quickly and eagerly use up the classroom resources, so in the beginning of the year, I tell them as clearly as possible how/why we need to share supplies.

If you had a wish list of needs for your classroom what would the top three things be?

The most important tool in my classroom is the Chromebook cart, which I thankfully received this year for the first time in my career. Everything else seems like peanuts compared to that! So other than the laptops, my top three needs always seem to be: 1) bound notebooks, 2) glue sticks, and 3) pencils. I swear there is a pencil-eating monster under my desk and he comes out at night.

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