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Interviews & Features

Summer Landon | Teacher

Summer Ann Landon | 32 | General Education Elementary School Teacher 

When every new day the news cycle seems to bring a fresh dose of misery and despair, I take solace in knowing there are humans like Summer Landon. She's both silly and sweet, incredibly strong and loyal. Her genuine, unabashed love for other humans is heartening in these troubling times, and I don't think I've ever met anyone for whom the instinct to nurture is so strong. 

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Although we've known each other for a few years now, I feel like I learn new things about her constantly. She mentions things about her life offhandedly, usually leaving me with a million questions. (Some of my favorites include once having a job fixing Nintendos all day, or when she was a teenager and she'd ride her skateboard in front of frat houses and do kick-flips in exchange for tips). Summer is a witchy, magical, mysterious, powerhouse of a woman, who knows what she wants, and pursues it with her whole heart. Listening to her talk about her life was fascinating, and we discussed her time in Korea, corporal punishment, and how she decided she wanted to be a teacher. Enjoy!

Photo by Brenden Price

Is teaching something that you always wanted to do?

Absolutely not. (laughs) When I was in school I always thought, who would want to be a teacher? To go to school every single day? Terrible. Originally my dream was to be a biologist, to study insects, and live in a treehouse in the rainforest. (Laughs)

Study insects?

Yes! I had this idea when I was in high school to study insects that ate medicinal plants. I wondered if… during the digestive process, would it change the makeup of those plants, and would they have different properties of that medicine?

So… the poop? You wanted to study bugs and their poop?

Well… yes. (Laughs) When I think about it now… but you know, it was my half-baked idea as a high school kid. I guess I would have been talking about insect poop… but also the insects themselves. Their biology. When I got to college, I just went wherever the wind took me. I did an internship in Germany for International Business Relations because I wanted to travel, and a short exchange program in Austria when I was in high school. I figured if I did the internship in Germany I would go back to Austria and see my host family. I did the internship, but I realized that I get pretty homesick as a 19-year-old that doesn’t get to speak English on a regular basis.

After you came back from Germany, what was your next move?

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Before I went to Germany, I was working as a relief manager at Burger King. I realized I didn’t want to become a manager at Burger King... and when I got back my mother recommended that I sign up for the substitute paraprofessional list for the county, which would mean that I’d be working as an aide in special needs classrooms.

Is that her line of work?

That’s what she did at the time, but she later became an intensive behavioral interventionist.

What does that entail?  

Say there’s a kid that has an individualized education plan (also known as an IEP), if they have severe behavioral problems, she'd train the staff on how to work with them. She would work with the child too, to get a program established until their behavior becomes more appropriate, and then she’d phase out.

Did you decide to sign up for the substitute paraprofessional list?

Yes. I signed up to be a substitute for that program, and I ended up working with my mom in the classroom, which I loved. It was great, I got to see her every day. I worked in the same classroom the entire time, with three to five-year-old children who had autism.

What was that like?

A lot of the kids couldn’t communicate, and that made life really difficult for them. They can’t communicate their needs, and they’d have severe behavior because of it. It was a really challenging position, but it was very rewarding. You’d see these tiny little steps of progress… like they’d make eye contact with you for three seconds. And that was amazing.

That sounds intense.

Photo by Brenden Price

I have that picture of me with a little girl that’s on my fridge. I worked with her in that classroom; she has autism. She was non-verbal; her form of communication was to whine, or scream, or yell. I was told by the specialist that she probably wouldn’t ever speak, so I was teaching her to communicate through pictures. It’s called the PECS program. She’d have this Velcro board that had the PECS pictures on them, and you can use them to form sentences. Her family spoke Spanish at home, and we spoke English in the classroom, so that was another obstacle for her, she’s learning a new language as well. But the great thing about the PECS program is that a picture is a picture in any language.

Did that work well for her?

Yeah, she could do non-verbal imitation, and she started getting these building blocks of communication that a one-year-old would have.

And she was how old?

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Three, maybe four. Around that time I went to an autism training with a specialist named Karen Messler. I learned so much from her, she’s an amazing woman. I learned at those trainings that students with autism perform very well having things done the same way over and over again. And something that’s very rhythmic is music. What I decided to do with this little girl in particular, was to sing everything to her instead of speak. Everything had a singsong-y type of sound.

Was it always set to the same melody?

Every phrase I used had a specific melody tied to it. When we’d walk around, I would give her a little Winnie the Pooh boom box that would play that song “Up, down, touch the ground, gets me in the mood….” (laughs). We’d walk and dance and sing that song every time we’d walk from one place to the next; and eventually she started mimicking the melodies. After months and months of us doing that, one day another paraprofessional took her for a walk, and she pointed at a puddle of water and said “Agua.”

The little girl did?

The little girl did. The aide that was with her, she ran back to the classroom and burst in and yelled “SHE JUST SAID AGUA!” And it was just… tears. Everyone was crying, because we thought she would never talk! Towards the end of that job, I could sit with her with a pack of markers and she could say “I want the purple marker.”

That’s a big change.

That’s what inspired me to become a teacher. I keep that picture of us on my refrigerator, and when I have a particularly bad day at school I come home and look at it and remember that feeling.

If that was the experience that inspired you, why didn’t you continue down that path and pursue special education?

That’s a great question. When I worked in that classroom, we had a special education teacher, and four aides… and I noticed that because of the amount of paperwork she did, a lot of the teaching and interaction was done through the aides. She would create the programs for the kids and track their progress, but I was the one executing her plan. She didn’t get to spend as much time with the kids.

After you worked there, and figured out teaching was what you wanted to do, what came next?

When I graduated from the credential program at Chico State, there weren’t many teaching jobs available. There were about 100 applicants per position, and I didn’t have any formal experience, so I applied to teach English in South Korea to build my resume. I ended up working in Seoul for a private academy. It was an after-school type of thing, they’re called Hagweons.

Did you speak any Korean when you first arrived?

No.

How was that for you?

It was easy, because I spoke English, and I hate to say this, but I’m white, so I had an easier time in South Korea. A lot of people wanted to practice their English.

Did you run into any hurdles with the kids, in not being able to speak Korean?

Photo by Brenden Price

Depends on their level. The majority of the kids I taught had been in the Hagweon system for about two years already. I did have some kids that had just started learning English, and I was teaching them the alphabet and the sounds… with those I had a lot of criers and kids that would pee their pants.

Jeez, were you saying something to them to provoke the peeing?

Well, they’re learning a new language, and they’re so young. They would get overwhelmed; our languages are incredibly different. There are sounds in English that don’t exist in Korean. Like the t-h, the thhh or ffff sound. A lot of our French-influenced sounds aren’t in the Korean language. For example, kids would call their phone a “pone.” I’d have to teach them that “fff” sound, but a lot of the time, because of their age, they didn’t have their front teeth (laughs). So they couldn’t do it, and I had to reassure them that when their teeth grew in, they’d be able to. But there was a lot of spit flying (laughs).

That sounds stressful for everyone involved.

They’d try really hard… but it’s a very high stress environment in general, and they’re expected to perform at such high levels at such a young age. The education system is structured so that if they want to get into the right college, they’d have to get into the right high school, the right elementary school… These kids are applying to get into elementary schools so they can plan their whole lives out.

Did you have any go-to methods for when a kid starts crying or pees their pants in your class?

Well when they’d pee their pants, I’d just call the office and have them come get the kids (laughs). If they were crying, depending on their age and level of English, I could ask them why they were upset. If they could communicate with me, I’d try to fix it in the classroom. But the younger kids that couldn’t speak any English at all, I’d give them a softer face and a reassuring smile, and try to get someone in there to help that could speak Korean.

How long did you teach there?

A year and a half.

Did you notice… hmm.. I’m not sure how to phrase this question. I guess I’m wondering if you noticed any consistencies when it came to behaviors or attitudes of American kids at that age versus Korean kids at that age?

That’s hard to say, considering I was teaching at a private school in Korea, and I’m teaching at a public school now. It’s such a different group of kids. When I first moved to Korea they had just recently passed the law where you couldn’t hit the kids anymore in class.

Um… what?

Yeah. When I first got there, the parents would come to me and say hey, I know you’re not allowed to do that anymore, but you can hit my kid. Spank them. If they misbehave. Or smack them. Of course I didn’t do that.

How do you even respond to something like that?

I’d just smile… I think it was a smile of disbelief, I was taken off guard. You hear that that type of punishment exists in the world still, but to be in a position where a parent is telling you that it’s ok to punish their child in a physical way, it’s just… I felt like a deer in the headlights. And usually it was being translated to me by another staff member through the parent. So I’d just give a dumb smile and… (laughs) I don’t really know how I reacted. The kids in my class were generally very well behaved… they told me that the teachers in their public schools started hitting the bottom of their feet with a ruler, or pinching them instead, because it wasn’t technically against the law.

That’s fucked up.

Photo by Brenden Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

(Laughs) Yeah… I had a few kids say that they liked coming to my class because they didn’t get hit on the bottoms of their feet with a ruler when they didn’t do their homework.

 Jesus.  

There’s an element of fear there, but not to the point where it was debilitating. I think it was just a normal thing for them, like when I got thumped on the forehead by my dad when I was little and I was being an asshole.

So overall, did you like living there?

I really loved it. The people were very kind, especially once I learned enough phrases to communicate in certain places, like on the subway or at the market, or in restaurants. If I spoke Korean to them, that was my in to be treated better. I wasn’t treated badly, but they would definitely dote on me a little bit more. Learning to read Korean was pretty easy, because it’s a phonetic language, and it doesn’t have a lot of exceptions to the rules like English does.

I know you love Korean food, is there anything that you miss in particular that you can’t get here?

Oh man… the cold soups, and the little rice pastries… little desserts. I think it’s just the availability of it, and the wide variety. You can basically get Korean BBQ or soup, and that’s it. But I can’t wake up and say ok, I’m hungover today, let’s go get Kimbop. There are times when I dream about Korea. I loved working there, I loved the people. They really are fantastic.

So after Korea, you came back home, what happened next?

After Korea I got a job teaching fifth grade in San Jose at Windmill Springs Elementary School, which was amazing. It was the black sheep of the district.

How so?

They had two SDC (special day class) classrooms that focused on autism, and to help them perform better they didn’t have any bells or whistles on the campus.

Literal bells and whistles?

(Laughs) Yeah, literal bells and whistles. It was a really special school. When I was working in the Head Start program, I realized that because the nature of general education and special education are so different, a lot of general education teachers hardly get any special ed training. In my credential program we only had one semester of training, which I think is pretty common.

How long did you work there?

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Two years. I really loved working at that school, but I eventually decided to move back home to be closer to my family. So after I moved, I got a job teaching eighth grade in Red Bluff.

Photo by Brenden Price

Oh wow. Junior high kids are so difficult.

Yeah, but they don’t even know why they’re being so mean. Their emotions are developed, but not the logic. Logic comes in the early twenties.

And sometimes not at all. I feel like seventh grade was probably one of the worst years of my life, and a lot of that centered around the other kids.

Well, imagine PMS-ing for three years straight. 

Gross.

Yeah. When their logic isn’t developed enough to actually understand or make sense of their behavior… these kids are suffering.

And causing others to suffer.

And they don’t know they’re doing it! If you ask a child that’s in seventh grade why they did something ridiculous, they’ll say “I don’t know.” A lot of the time they really don’t know.

You taught eighth grade there, was it the worst?

For my teaching style and personality, it really was. You can’t really wear your heart on your sleeve, in my experience.

How would you classify your teaching style and personality?

Um… well my sense of humor is more appropriate for fourth and fifth grade students (laughs). My jokes didn’t really land with the 8th graders.

Can you give me an example of something you’d say to a 5th grade class, and how you’d have to amend that to speak to 8th graders?

Oh gosh…

I guess I’m curious how you’d have to edit yourself to be able to communicate effectively.


Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

Ohh ok (laughs). Well, typically I’m a very nurturing person. As a teacher, I’m pretty hilarious, I have to say (laughs). My current class will laugh, even if I tell them to laugh. I condition them to get my humor. But I really struggled with 8th graders, because the humor didn’t land, and the nurturing was taken as a weakness, instead of a strength… so I realized I had to be a cold-hearted bitch. That’s when things would get across. It was really difficult. Imagine being a person who can pick up on people’s emotions easily, and having 24…

Suffering kids?

Suffering kids. Eighteen of them are boys. In a school where the classrooms are self-contained, so I had them all day. Allllllll day. Middle schools are really cool. The cool cats, I don’t take your shit… I don’t know how they do it.

I don’t either. It seems like a nightmare job.

Yeah, but they don’t understand how I can do 5th grade. It all depends where your personality falls on the spectrum.

Have you noticed any consistent personality traits among junior high teachers?

They’re usually the people who don’t show their cards. They care a lot about their students, but their professional line with them is drawn a lot darker and deeper. They don’t show their emotions as freely. Which doesn’t mean that they care any less, but they have to keep hold of that organized chaos. When I was teaching 8th grade, if I showed compassion in front of the whole class, the kids tried to take advantage of it.

Let’s talk about your current job.

Ok cool, I’m done talking about the 8th grade.

Me too. Tell me about your current job.

I realized quickly that middle school wasn’t a good fit for me and my personality, so I resigned after one year. I got hired at Manzanita School in Gridley, and I totally struck gold. That school is amazing. It’s transitional kindergarten through 8th grade.

Worst day on the job, best day on the job. What do those each look like?

Best day on the job is when students have mastered the routine and behavioral expectations, and I’m able to give the reins to them so they can do investigations and inquiry into what we’re studying. It’s when I’m acting as a facilitator rather than a teacher. When we’re diving deep into a subject, and they’re making discoveries, versus me telling them what to do. Anytime I hear that “Gasp! Ohhhh!” That’s my favorite sound in the classroom, it makes my day. It usually happens in science or math. Or sometimes they’ll find deeper layers in literature. When they see something I don’t, I love that. I just think… yeah, you guys teach the class I’ll just sit back. Those are my favorite days. Not because I’m lazy, but because they’re learning.

What about the worst day on the job? What does that look like?

Worst day is when there are outside forces that interfere with the classroom.

Like what?

Hmm… I’m trying to say this kindly… because life happens, and things happen outside of school. The worst day can be when there’s bullying happening in the classroom that I’m just noticing. Or if there are demands coming from administration or parents that aren’t realistic. I can give a specific example about the bullying. I had a moment once where I realized that 80% of the kids in my class were picking on one student in particular. By ten years old the students are really good at covering things, so it wasn’t obvious right away that they were picking on that kid. It was happening more on the playground.

So basically they know better, and they’re hiding it from you.

Yes. The worst day is when it finally occurs to me what’s happening. That moment of realization, and wishing I could have stopped it before it even began. Seeing the look on that child’s face that’s being picked on, because they’re finally showing it… it just crushes me. There’s a lot of damage control, but there’s also an opportunity for them to learn from it. The last time it happened, I abandoned the curriculum I had planned. I finished my literature unit up quickly, but changed my plan completely to focus on teaching them the difference between upstanding and by-standing. So that’s my worst day. When things are happening in the classroom that make a student feel like they’re not safe or welcome.

Can you tell me a little about your teaching style?

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

I try to make everything meaningful, and not have any time-fillers. I approach the lessons with inquiry. I’ll say ok, here are all the materials, and I’m going to give you some inspiring questions and build up the background knowledge. But I want them to play with the materials, and try to explain it before I give them the vocabulary. That way, they have the concepts, and they won’t really know how to talk about it, and I’ll give them the language later in the reading. And as they’re reading, they get really excited because they’re assigning the words to the concepts, which is really backwards from what we’ve been told before.

Totally, but I’d imagine it probably cements it in their brains a lot better.

Photo by Brenden Price

They own it. If I first told them this is kinetic energy, this is potential energy, I think they’d confuse the two terms. But if I give them the shared experience and then they have the word to connect to the concepts, it’s something that they’ve touched and played with. That’s the type of learning I like to encourage.

That’s really interesting.

I like to think when I’m designing a unit that I’ll be able to use it the next year, and I might be able to… but it’ll definitely take a different form. I have a lot of strategies I can use, but I try to do what’s best for the kids in the classroom.

That sounds like more work, but it seems like it would ultimately be more beneficial for the kids. You’re designing the material based on how they want to learn, rather than trying to fit them into a predetermined mold. To only offer the information one way is limiting, and I’d imagine it probably excludes and leaves behind a lot of kids.

It’s a very flexible classroom. Sometimes I’ll preface a lesson by saying we’re being very flexible today (laughs), and they’ll say yeah Miss Landon, let’s go!

What’s something problematic that you see happening within your field?

That’s easy. The shift of responsibility of behavior and expectations.

Meaning?

Meaning, when I was younger, even if the teacher did something a little bit wrong, the parents did not tell the children. And you didn’t come down and try to put their head on a stake.

It would be the kid’s fault.

Yes. You’d say obviously you’ve done something wrong to get the attention of the teacher to have this consequence. Versus now, in my experience, what I’m seeing happen is that the kid did something where their behavior needed to be addressed. But the parent was looking for fault with the teacher to justify the kid’s behavior.

There’s an assumption of guilt placed on the teacher, rather than the student.

Yes. Another example could be, my student has a B-, why didn’t you call and tell me? We could have addressed this? And it’s like no, your kid has an online gradebook, they get their papers passed back to them, they see their scores, they know they can redo them. I have them check their grades and their missing assignments, they can go online and see their missing assignments. But instead they come to me and say why didn’t you tell me this is happening?

Why do you think that shift is happening?

I don’t know (sighs). That shift isn’t happening for every person, but I do see a lot of blame being put on the teacher.

This might be an overwhelming question, but what can people, both parents and teachers, do to combat that?

Well, I might open a can of worms here… I’m going to use this statement as a blanket metaphor. Participation trophies… the idea that if a student shows up and tries… not tries their best. But if they just show up and try, they should get rewarded… that’s problematic. Versus, if you show up and try hard, you get rewarded.

So you’re saying, no trophies for anyone.

Photo by Brendan Price

Photo by Brendan Price

(Laughs) No… It’s not bad to get recognition for participation, but it’s being overdone. Parents don’t like to see their kids struggle, or doubt themselves. I think it’s that’s what makes them come to me and ask what I’m doing wrong that their kid is having trouble. But really, if they’re struggling, that means they’re learning. It means I’m doing my job. You can’t grow without struggling.

Very true.

I could see myself behaving the same way when I have children, wanting to momma bear them like that. I hope I remember to check myself, step back and know that they need to have challenges. If they’re stressed out about something, they’ll learn to cope with that stress and ultimately grow from it.

What do you wish people knew about your profession?

I wish people knew that it’s one of the few jobs in the world where you’re expected to work beyond your contract without extra compensation. I also wish people knew that you could potentially have children coming from homes with thirty different parenting styles, and every teacher is going to have a different teaching style. If parents get upset about something happening in the classroom, I wish they’d take a step back and ask themselves if their child is being wronged, or if it’s just a different approach than they would have. Not every teacher is always in the right. But I think it’s valuable to take a step back and know that one teacher is managing thirty different styles of life for these kids.

Photo by Brenden Price

Well sure… and even if they’re siblings coming from the same home, they’re still coming into any situation with their own individual frame of reference and life experiences. Ok, last question: Are you living your dream? If not, what does that look like?

The dream would be when I’m in the same grade level with the same curriculum for years, I have my own family, and I’m able to balance my family with my classroom. If I had kids right now, I’m not sure that I’d be able to do that, but I’m working towards it.

Arielle Mullen