After seven years of bouncing around the LAUSD, first at a middle school, then starting a pilot school, then in administration, Nicki Tiberio came home—to Theodore Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, where she herself attended high school. She’s been here three years now and like her colleague Gene Dean, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinions.
Growing up in Boyle Heights, she always knew she wanted to be in education. Her mother works in Special Ed with adults. “It gave me an understanding that everyone deserves to work at their level,” Nicki tells me as we sit in the shade of one of the school’s enormous courtyard, Nicki continually answering frantic texts from teachers asking for help in administering the Common Core practice tests (“I can’t say that all of my colleagues are tech-savvy,” she says, philosophical. “There’s no way to prepare for this new assessment other than to practice resilience through patience. A lot of my colleagues aren’t ready for this.”)
Resilience is one of Nicki’s core beliefs, one of the qualities she most hopes to teach her students. After graduating from Roosevelt’s magnet with a stellar GPA, Nicki was stunned to find herself placed in remedial English at Occidental College “like many of my students,” she tells me. The experience was discouraging but she refused to give up, majoring in English, which her academic advisor assured her would give her the writing skills she needed. But at the end of her senior year, she failed the high-stakes exam she needed for her degree. “I had to visit all my professors and re-write all those essays,” she says, an experience that required enormous strength and faith. “I look back and say thank goodness for my resilience. Somebody had faith in me and that made me able to get my degree. I look at my students and I don’t want them to have that experience.”
She shares her story with her students. “I have such a passion for teaching writing now, teaching kids to find their voice,” she says. “Communicating effectively and understanding the audience is number one. That’s where I differ from my contemporaries. I recognize the power of code-switching,” she says, referring to the practice of overtly discussing the diction choices students have and teaching academic language without implying that students ought to change the way they talk to their friends or family; in this view, all the gradations of formal and informal language are seen as codes to be used in different contexts without assigning these contexts a value judgment as superior or inferior. “When students understand their power of code-switching, that realization can lead to resilience. As we Latinos grow and become a majority, we need to recognize the power that begins with language. I didn’t recognize that at first. Spanish is a second language for me.”
Because of her personal passion and connection to her students, Nicki’s view of the factionalized educational world is nuanced. “Look, there’s a spectrum,” she says. “I’m still trying to figure out where I am on it. I personally do believe in my students. I know how hard it is for them to get here every day. If they even get here, that’s 60% of the way. There are so many social factors. When I taught at Garfield, only two miles away, it was a completely different demographic. A lot of my kids were coming from home ownership and dual-parent families. They had two parents, or at least they had two adults or an individual who were behind them. Here, my students have more wear and tear. They’re not mostly home owners, they’re renters. That makes a more transient community. A lot of my kids are challenged by their families. Maybe there have been some bad choices, maybe a bad relationship that mom or dad has. A lot of my kids are carrying a harm that hasn’t been dealt with.”
In making the distinction between home owners and renters, Nicki strikes at a core issue that educators seem largely to have missed in their categorizations of schools, which is that even among students who are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged and who share the same ethnic background, there are gradations of poverty that statistics don’t yet capture. When Roosevelt and Garfield are two miles apart and both are demographically similar on paper (both are over 95% Latino and have over 2/3 of students classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged), and then Roosevelt is declared failing by the city and Garfield is not, the schools themselves are considered solely responsible for their students’ test scores and graduation rates as if the communities were identical when in reality, the instability of Roosevelt’s families may be causing significant traumas to children that are playing out in classrooms. Teachers who do not “succeed” at “motivating” these students may just not have the resources to reach these students and start to heal the underlying trauma before demanding “excellence.”
On the other hand, Nicki is firm that “even though we as educators need to be sensitive to our students’ home lives, there’s no excuse for denying students an education.” She is weary of teachers who don’t bother to try, who don’t keep up with innovation, who don’t have the classroom management skills to create an atmosphere where learning is possible. “Once that student steps into your classroom they have a right to learn. Sometimes their peers impede them, sometimes teachers impede them. I have a problem with teachers who won’t proudly say ‘students first.’”
Her current goal is to empower parents to take an active role in their childrens’ education. “Parents are the first teachers. I try to steer the parents into conversations that go beyond how their kids are behaving. I have a few parents that I’m working with closely. I want to teach our parents Socratic questioning. Kids are sponges, they’ll pick it up from their parents.” But the work hasn’t been easy. Recently, she prepared a presentation for parents about the Common Core. No one showed up.
Ever resilient, Nicki is preparing another presentation. “I’m gonna beef it up, do it at a different time. I want parents to see how this questioning methodology can work. That way it will infect the community. I want my students to come to school and ask, ‘Miss, why are my parents always asking me questions?’”
Pregnant now with her first child, Nicki’s pretty sure she doesn’t want him to attend a neighborhood district school. “I still think public schools need so much work. I don’t think he’d receive the care I want him to receive. There are teachers I think he’d flourish with, but then maybe the next grade won’t have any. You can’t be moving your child around all the time. So for my husband and me, charters are definitely on the table. So are private schools. Private and charter schools, they understand that parent participation is the key.”
For Nicki, this humanistic view is what’s missing from education in general. “You can’t just look at test scores. We have to look at the elements that are missing. We have to remember that every student is somebody’s child. That’s where I think our system is flawed. If our system authentically valued good teaching, we’d embed more ways for teachers to rejuvenate the self. We need to take care of ourselves so we can take care of our students. We need to model the value that all of us matter.”