“No teacher has ever gone over and above like that for either of my kids or even when I was a kid. She’s phenomenal.”
Grandparent Brenda Mathis
When Brenda Mathis dropped off her 9-year-old grandson, Blake, at his new fourth-grade classroom at Bridgeport Elementary School, she was as nervous as he was. He had only recently come to live with her, and Mathis was still processing what it meant to raise a child again after years of being an empty nester.
“I was stressed out wondering how I’m going to be able to handle all this—going to work, Blake, child protective services, if I could afford all this. There was a lot going through my mind,” she says.
Blake’s mother (Mathis’s daughter) has struggled with substance abuse issues since he was born. When she was using, she would sometimes disappear with Blake for months, and Mathis wouldn’t see them. It made for a chaotic childhood. “He was basically raising himself,” says Mathis. “Blake would get up, dress himself, go to school, feed himself.” Someone called child protective services, and Mathis was awarded custody of her grandson.
Blake is a sensitive and caring child with a cherubic face. Mathis calls him an “old soul.” But she also knew that her grandson could sometimes get upset and lash out because of past trauma. He hadn’t had consistent schooling since he was in kindergarten and was far behind academically. Still, Mathis took a deep breath and shared what she knew about her grandson with educators.
“His attitude was, ‘I don’t need school, school is stupid.’ I brought those concerns up front because I didn’t want there to be any surprises.”
Mathis needn’t have worried. His new teacher was Brenda Alarcón.
“She was just really caring. I wasn’t being judged; there was no ‘Oh my God’ or anything like that. She just said, ‘Well, whatever we need to do to get Blake going, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Alarcón always knew that she wanted to be a teacher. When she was about the same age as Blake is now, she started a school in her garage for half a dozen children who lived nearby. She was determined it wasn’t going to be a pretend school.
“I used my weekly allowance to buy workbooks. And I went door-to-door to the parents of the neighborhood kids. I told them that I was having a school for summer skills. I made it so official that the kids showed up!”
Alarcón laughs and says her “garage school” lasted about two days because the kids quickly decided they weren’t going to spend their summer indoors studying. “But I loved it!”
Alarcón has been a teacher for 27 years. She’s taught in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the South Bronx, New York, but was drawn back to her home state of Oregon. Bridgeport Elementary is in Tualatin, a suburb about 15 miles south of Portland. The school has 530 students; about half are white and half are students of color, of which the vast majority are Hispanic. “Teachers and staff work very hard to make sure that every student feels valued,” says Alarcón, who has worked there for the past 20 years.
Alarcón says she loves teaching nine-year-olds because they’re at that “in-between” stage. “Fourth graders still have that big sense of imagination. If a teacher dresses up, they’re like, ‘ooh!’ They still love all the fun and creative aspects of school,” she says. “But they also are growing into that broadening maturity and ready to tackle some more complex academic topics.”
Her students are delighted when she makes up silly dances and talks in a British accent when teaching them proper nouns. They’re equally enthralled by debate topics such as “Are professional athletes paid too much?” and details about weathering and soil erosion.
“She approaches the profession with such humility; it's incredible to watch. She really likes to share resources and adjust her approach based on what our kids need and on what she's learning from other people.”
Principal Jordan Mills
Alarcón says Blake didn’t act out in her class; he just checked out. He spent most of the day with his head on the desk. He didn’t participate nor did he make friends with the other children. “He had just opted out,” Alarcón says. She called his previous teacher. “She told me that in the four months that he had been at the school, he had not done one single piece of work. Nothing. And I thought, ‘How can that be?’”
Blake remembered that time as well. It was a new school, and he was overwhelmed. “It was kind of stressful for me for how long the days were,” he says. “I’d be very tired, because I’d be stressed about school.”
Alarcón let Blake sit at the back of her class, knowing he was self-conscious when other students looked at him. “In my younger days, I would have put a struggling student in front of the room; that’s where they’re going to see me the best,” Alarcón says. “But now I think they need that graceful spot in the back where eyes aren’t on them.’”
She realized that Blake hadn’t had much structure before he lived with his grandmother, so she met with him every day before class to tell him what was going to happen—how many problems they would do, when they would take a break and what would happen next. She would also give him a heads-up when a lesson was going to be particularly hard. “I’d say, ‘this concept is difficult, it’s going to feel difficult, and it’s going to feel like ‘I’m never going to get this,’ and that’s a normal feeling. But then when we’re done, you and I will sit at the back and I’ll help you through every step.’”
Alarcón says that being able to anticipate Blake’s feelings and recognize that they were normal reassured him tremendously. She explains that for children with greater social and emotional needs, “Structure can be a very big friend.”
Then Alarcón began to tackle Blake’s school work.
Jordan Mills, the principal at Bridgeport Elementary School, says Alarcón’s warm and caring manner belies her incredibly high expectations for every single one of her students: “She does not compromise by lowering her expectations for any of her students.”
Mills says Alarcón calls her students “scholars,” which “just really sets the tone for what she expects that they can do. She treats them like scholars, so they will be.”
Alarcón individualizes lesson plans, she adjusts her own schedule, she tweaks assignments, she spends hours working one-on-one with children. What she won’t do? “She just doesn’t settle,” says Mills. “And that’s the reason her classes consistently experience such success.”
Blake says math class was the hardest. “I would get stuck and I would get kind of frustrated,” he says.
Alarcón realized that Blake didn’t know how to do the problems, and that he was also visually overwhelmed by how many he was expected to do. So she started by giving him far fewer problems to solve than everyone else. If the class was working on 15, he would have to do just four. “And then as he grew in confidence, he was able to do more and more.”
She also completed most of the steps in his math problems for him, before class. “At first, I would fill in almost all of it so he’d have to just fill in one tiny part. He would come in and it would almost all be done for him.”
She says that helped him feel less overwhelmed. “It was just this easing him into the comfortability of being in the class and not letting him opt out. So I could still say, ‘You did all your work today!’” As his confidence grew, she filled in less and less.
Alarcón says it doesn’t build a child’s confidence to lower or remove standards. But with supports, she says, every child can be successful. “Knowing that you did what everybody else did—I think that kids gain a lot of confidence from that.”
With more confidence, she says, they’re willing to take more risks. And with more risks, they’re willing to learn more.
That’s exactly what happened with Blake. He started raising his hand to volunteer answers and slowly began making friends in class. “He just blossomed,” says Alarcón.
Blake doesn’t know about all the hours of planning that went into Alarcón’s strategies. He just remembers how he always felt comfortable asking her for help. “She is very sweet and caring. You can ask her about anything. She really helped me. I’m smarter now because of Miss Brenda.”
Alarcón also found ways to celebrate Blake and boost his confidence outside class. Two weeks after he started school, Blake got a “Perfect Attendance” certificate. “That was super good for his morale. And for mine!” laughs Blake’s grandmother. “It’s still hanging on our wall.”
Students at Bridgeport Elementary can earn points, and the reward is typically a piece of candy. But Alarcón quickly found Blake wasn’t interested in anything material—he didn’t care about chocolates or toys. So she worked on special rewards for him. Blake beams when he remembered the time he earned enough points to be the gym teacher’s helper for a class. It’s one of the happiest memories in his life; he loved being a leader. “I helped them in gym. Like if the ball got stuck at a tall place, I would reach it for them!”
“She is very sweet and caring. You can ask her about anything. She really helped me. I'm smarter now because of Miss Brenda.”
Student Blake Kruse
Alarcón recognized that it wasn’t just Blake who was struggling. His grandmother was too: “She was a brand new foster parent to him.” So Alarcón began sending her daily emails of how Blake was doing and how Mathis could support him at home. “She helped me understand exactly what Blake needed to do, where the homework pages were and if they got done,” says Mathis.
Blake could no longer say he didn’t have homework or he didn’t know what he had to do. Alarcón was available after school if Blake needed extra help, but also when Mathis had questions. She helped Mathis navigate the process to get Blake some specialized services.
Mathis says being a partner with Alarcón and having someone with whom to talk through challenges helped her immensely. “It really turned something that could have been really bad into something really great,” says Mathis. “I kind of felt guilty after a while because I thought she was giving us too much attention!”
The coordinated approach worked. “At first Blake probably felt cornered because he didn’t have anywhere to hide anymore,” Alarcón laughs. “But he was actually doing school now.”
Alarcón spent an enormous amount of time and energy supporting Blake. But she has anywhere from 25 to 33 children in a class, and he wasn’t the only child who needed help.
“Honestly, I’m not sure how she does it all the time. She’s just incredibly, incredibly dedicated,” says Principal Mills.
Alarcón brushes off any praise and credits the other teachers and staff in the school. “What I love about my school is that everybody is on board across classes or grade levels to do whatever they can to help a student be successful,” she says.
Mills says that Alarcón is very modest about what a support she is to others in the building. “Some of our newer teachers have really appreciated having her as a resource because she’s such a wealth of knowledge and very skilled at what she does,” he says. And her passion for learning is inspirational.
“She approaches the profession with such humility; it’s incredible to watch. She really likes to share resources and adjust her approach based on what our kids need and on what she’s learning from other people,” says Mills.
“She just doesn’t settle, and that’s the reason her classes consistently experience such success.”
Principal Jordan Mills
Blake and his grandmother remember their year with Brenda Alarcón fondly. Mathis says she saw a huge improvement in Blake. “They really, really formed a bond,” she says. “I could start crying just thinking about it. I mean, no teacher has ever gone over and above like that for either of my kids or even when I was a kid. No teacher ever reached out like that. She’s phenomenal.”
Blake agrees. His fondest memories of her are when he fell ill with a fever and had to miss school for two weeks, and Alarcón would write to him. He treasures those notes. “She would send letters and check up on me to see how I was doing. She is very sweet and kind. If you’re getting down, she’s always trying to help you. She’s a really good person.”
Photography by Craig Mitchelldyer
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