Ashley Landis/Staff photographer

Think you know Dallas ISD teachers? Here’s why these rock stars say they do the job

by Sharon Grigsby, Metro columnist | March 8, 2019

Classroom teachers don’t have an easy go of it. The one-size-fits-all description often portrayed publicly is that they’re demoralized, disrespected and underpaid.

Most recently, Time magazine’s “I’m a teacher in America” cover stories pushed this narrative. The much-talked-about series focused on how thankless the job is — with headlines such as “I work two extra jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills” and “I’ve been laid off three times due to budget cuts.”

There’s something to these portrayals. You’ll get no argument from me that many teachers deserve better pay — and the Texas Legislature is working out plans to make that happen.

But those magazine covers didn’t do the teaching profession any favors. Who would want their kids educated by such stressed-out, downtrodden folks? And who would be crazy enough to choose a noble career in education after seeing only the grimmest examples of difficulties?

Fed up with all the gloom-and-doom headlines, John Gasko, dean of the University of North Texas at Dallas School of Education, and Karen Blessen, with her 29 Pieces nonprofit, counterpunched with magazine-cover-style posters that tell a far different story.

 The result is the Dallas Teachers Speak exhibit, which spotlights 158 of the district’s best educators.

The posters will be on display at American Airlines Center from March 16 through May. Plans are in the works to place the posters in libraries, Dallas City Hall and the state Capitol. In coming days, you’ll also be able to see them all at 29pieces.org.

Gasko and Blessen were already brainstorming project ideas when Time published its teacher series. That was the spark, as Blessen recalled, “to put DISD teachers in a new light, to show the rock star teachers I knew were out there.”

I’d give the posters three thumbs up if I could. The joy, heart and smarts of these teachers — among our city’s most critical change-makers — is infectious.

Of course, the featured educators are only a handful of the more than 10,000 teachers who work in DISD. Those selected include teacher-of-the-year nominees and others recognized as being at the top of their game.

Their answers to “Why do I teach?” and “What do I need?” reflect a relentless passion for their jobs, a desire for more autonomy and calls for more funding — not in their take-home pay but for their classrooms. Also on their wish lists: parents enthused about supporting their kids, time for lesson planning and administrators with a teacher’s heart.

Each participant arrived at the photo shoots, which moved from school to school the last three months of 2018, with a prop that illustrated his or her teaching story.

One of the posters shows Dallas ISD teacher Danielli Costa in Wonder Woman accessories. (29 Pieces photo team)

For instance, Danielli Costa, who teaches precalculus and AP statistics, brought Wonder Woman accessories and wrote: “Why do I teach? Because it is through the sharing of knowledge that students are empowered to become the superheroes of the future.”

Kindergarten teacher Yuri Ellett wore a pin bearing the image of an Aztec god that he told me “connects me with my mom and connects me with the person that I want to be in my classroom for my students.”

Ellett, who has lived in Richardson since he began his teaching career at Felix G. Botello Elementary a dozen years ago, says he’s frequently asked why he makes the commute to Oak Cliff. “It’s because of the kids. I want to give these students a home away from home.”

Sarah Horn-Wilder, a theater arts instructor for six years at J.L. Long Middle School in East Dallas, clearly had a festive time with the bright yellow feather boa she brought to her photo shoot. “I’ve never seen anyone pick up a boa in my classroom and not have fun with it.”

She told me that her goal for the poster project is the same one she gives her students each time they perform: Inspire and touch just one person. “If just one person is inspired by my poster, either to go teach or to understand how hard-working the teachers in Dallas are, that’s enough.”

Leah Longoria Huggins, who has taught dance for nine years at Sunset High School, is pictured in a dashing folklorica dress. She says she could work in any district, but she wants to stay in Dallas because “I make a real difference for these students.”

But she wishes the district’s reputation would improve to match the on-the-ground reality. “At least with these posters, people will see something new.”

From left: 29 Pieces artist assistant Joe Stokes, 29 Pieces artist assistant Dolores Mendoza, UNT Dallas Dean of the School of Education John Gasko, 29 Pieces artist assistant Hope Trevino, and 29 Pieces Executive Director and founder Karen Blessen.
(Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer)

As impressed as I was by the DISD teachers I met, I was also inspired by the people who were part of Blessen’s 29 Pieces photo team, who exclusively used iPhones and iPads.

Hope Trevino, who graduated from Dallas Can Academy in 2016, said she was moved by all the teachers and realized “the things they do are being done with great purpose.”

It was Trevino’s idea to ask the teachers to bring a favorite item for the photo sessions. The longer she worked on the project, the more intent she was on “making these teachers shine.”

Dolores Mendoza, a recent Sunset graduate who plans to become an art instructor, said the work helped her better understand “why teachers were so stressed and all the things teachers had to do that we didn’t know about.”

The stress and burnout that Mendoza referenced is at the root of Gasko’s work at UNT-Dallas. His Emerging Teacher Institute aims to uplift the education profession and provide innovative strategies to combat teacher dropout at public schools.

Gasko pointed out that North Texas last fall needed more than 7,000 new teachers, most of them to replace departing educators. Among the reasons they left: stress and lack of support from their bosses. Gasko said giving DISD teachers a chance to be heard through this project — as well as providing some much-needed recognition — is just one way to improve things.  

And if the posters entice more people to consider a career as an educator, even better.

“I believe that almost every single teacher I’ve met in DISD is there to do the right thing,” Horn-Wilder told me. “It feels like everyone is putting their heart into it, and that’s something I want to be a part of.”

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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