Photography and Writing Project Recognizes Alameda Teachers

Photographer Anne Kohler and sophomore Joy Diamond team up for Teachers of Alameda, an essay and social media project to support and advocate for Island teachers.


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Dustin Brantley is one of the featured Alameda teachers.

Photos by Anne Kohler

Editor’s Note: Alameda photographer Anne Kohler wants Alamedans to get to know their teachers and has embarked on a photo essay and social media project — Teachers of Alameda — showcasing educators throughout the year. While Kohler works the image side, Joy Diamond, a sophomore at Alameda High School and a journalism student, handles the words.

Kohler and her family moved to Alameda in 2007 from Marin County, choosing Alameda for its great schools. “We picked our house based on the neighborhood school Franklin Elementary. Our kids loved their experience there, and we loved our teacher community,” Kohler said.

“Teachers are so important to Alameda. Our community needs to have an educated and learned society. We need our kids to be inspired to create, communicate, learn, grow, innovate, and be ready for all the challenges they will face in life. Teachers are an integral part of that mission,” Kohler said.

After an evening at Alameda’s Lucky 13 with Judith Klinger, president of the Alameda Education Association, and 20 Alameda High School teachers who shared the challenges of the teaching profession — including low salaries, soaring health care costs, and sparse housing options — Kohler decided to show them some love and appreciation.

“I am a photographer, so I love using my camera to try to tell stories and catalyze change,” she said.

Through the Teachers of Alameda project, she hopes citizens can to get to know these important members the community while supporting their fight for better wages, benefits, and a more comfortable life.

“Through my intimate portraits and interviews, I have gained a whole new love and gratitude for our teachers. I am hoping you will, too, once you spend time getting to know our educators through this project.

Find Teachers of Alameda on Facebook and Instagram. Kohler will be adding more images and articles as completed. At press time, she had photographed and interviewed 12 teachers from a range of Alameda schools. Learn more about Kohler at AnneKohler.com.

—Judith M. Gallman

 

The Kid Whisperer

Dustin Brantley

Elementary Teacher, Franklin Elementary School

Dustin Brantley’s calling to mentor kids came early, at 17 as a summer counselor for the YMCA. Brantley continued the gig as a full-time working adult, saving up his vacation time to return as a counselor to help more kids. Thirteen summers later, Brantley’s calling led him to the classroom, prompting him to trade in a retail management job for teaching credentials.

He realized the classroom was the right place for him as a student teacher when he successfully steered a fifth-grade troublemaker and “problem” kid from having a negative self-image into having a positive one, thanks to a bonding and positive relationship between them.

Brantley has been teaching for about a decade and consistently displays great patience with his students. He’s known for playing, joking, and laughing with his students in the classroom, and he augments textbook learning with hands-on activities. He loves Franklin’s connected community and his “amazing” teacher colleagues and considers himself lucky to have a united community there.

The ability to live and work in Alameda, where he is a homeowner, is a bonus. “Schools become great, and cities become great when you have a community feeling and connection to those around you,” said Brantley, who is greeted constantly by children and parents when he walks down Park Street.

Brantley is troubled that many teachers struggle to afford to stay in Alameda and has witnessed talented teachers leaving Alameda for better salaries. He is staying put. Given his early days with YMCA camp kids, it might not be surprising to learn he still uses some time off in summer to run camps for kids.

Forever a Teacher

Lisa Gonzalves

ESL Teacher, Alameda Adult School

Lisa Gonzalves knew she wanted to teach as a little girl when she lesson-planned for and play-taught her birds and fish, but she took an indirect route to teaching.

First she worked in a nonprofit specializing in immigration law, where she learned she hated legal work but loved working with immigrant communities. She combined her interests by volunteering in English Second Language classes and ultimately was hired by the Alameda Adult School.

“I’m never tired of being in the classroom. It’s a joy. I learn so much from my students,” Gonzalves said.

Early on, she took on extra work to make ends meet and juggled multiple jobs in multiple cities so she could afford the mortgage on her Alameda home. The low salary prompted her to seek and achieve her administrative credential, which enabled her to pursue more opportunities in adult education. She also started but abandoned doctorate studies.

An ESL teacher at Alameda Adult School for over a decade, she has seen a dramatic decline in adult education there, with a high of 80 teachers when she started falling to 15 today at the severely financially hamstrung institution. 

Gonzalves’ also has a passion for teaching literacy, assisting adults who, on top of learning a new language, are illiterate in their native language. Success in reading and writing, she said, is a pivotal moment for everyone involved, with lots of tears.

But despite changing lives for so many students, Gonzalves is on the verge of leaving the classroom and pursuing a new calling: adult education policy.

“If I had my way, I guess I would be an ESL teacher forever, but there’s no way to make that be sustainable. I want to potentially land a job in education policy to make a difference, change the landscape of adult ed for the betterment of our students and our teachers.”

Times Have Changed

Sylvia Kahn

Special Education, Encinal High School

When Sylvia Kahn and her husband, Ken Salsbury, started teaching in Alameda decades ago, they saved money, went on vacations, and even bought a home in Alameda. Health insurance was great. They had a modest but comfortable income. Today, everything’s changed.

After teaching for nearly 30 years in the Alameda Unified School District, they are nearing the end of their careers, retiring among the lowest paid teachers in the county.

Kahn likes to say it took a long time for Alameda teachers to be the lowest paid around. She objects to the district’s tendency to emphasize nonessential luxuries, extracurricular activities, electives, and administrative duplicity over teacher salaries and employee retention, explaining, “I don’t think it should be the teachers’ job to advocate for their salaries versus children’s needs.”

Low salaries further impact prospective employees, forcing AUSD to leave teaching positions vacant or hire under-qualified individuals — especially troubling in Kahn’s opinion for the future of education.

“It’s being able to hire young, new teachers and having them stay. It’s being able to keep teachers who have come to our district, and it’s also being able to respect those who have spent their entire careers here. Alameda really has those of us who have committed to this district stuck.”

While some Alameda teachers choose to stay as renters in town rather than buying a home elsewhere in an effort to stay within the community, many cannot afford to rent in Alameda.

“You don’t become a teacher because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. But I definitely expected that I would be able to take care of myself and my family, and that someday, after working really hard and doing a really good job, I would be able to retire,” Kahn said.

Kahn, who took a break from teaching to work in the private sector to earn a higher salary, said it’s a sad likelihood that her family will have to move after retirement.

Doing What He Loves

Alain Valois

Math Teacher, Bay Farm Middle School

Fourteen years ago, Alain Valois left a six-figure job to go back to school and get his degree and teaching credential. Money was never his main concern.

His wife makes enough to support their family, which provides a sense of stability many Alameda teachers aren’t fortunate enough to have and therefore find themselves seriously struggling. In the fall, Valois saw his salary drop from $50,000 to $40,000 as Bay Farm Middle School cut its one geometry class that he would have taught; only three students had enrolled.

“Even at $50,000, I would be earning less now as a 52 year old with 14 years of teaching experience than I was in Canada in my first job 30 years ago,” Valois said about his low salary. “I’ve been teaching 14 years, but because I’ve only been in Alameda for a few years, I’m at pretty much the lowest end of the pay scale.”

Even so, the main reason Valois got into teaching is to help the kids who struggle to keep up in school. Having experienced that himself, Valois understands the impact of a competent teacher who loves what he or she does and how that positive figure can shape a students’ experience in school for the better. He wants to continue to make that impact, noting messages he’s received from past students telling him that he’s already made a difference in their learning journeys. Valois, like many educators within AUSD, will continue teaching despite small paychecks, because it’s what they love to do.

“I flunked math. I dropped out of school. I was one of those kids that couldn’t ace everything without trying. If I can just keep a few kids from going down that road of deciding ‘I can’t do math,’ it’s motivating.”

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