By Jenny Rollins
BU News Service
BOSTON — A mixture of Mary Poppins and Ms. Frizzle, the brightly-bedecked Amanda Robinson comes into her classroom every day with a giant cloth Target bag stuffed full of magnets, laser pointers, tubs of rice, white boards, markers and highlighters, pencils of every color and 11 notebooks, binders and books. Each are part of a lesson plan painstakingly personalized for each of her students, who are mostly kindergartners and first-graders with learning disabilities like dyslexia.
Robinson teaches her students at Robert Frost Elementary School to write words in the rice tubs with their fingers. They use the laser pointer to spell in the air and use the magnets and whiteboards to create words and see patterns.
The majority of her students process better doing multi-sensory activities with different materials to better understand words and sound patterns, Robinson explained.
Though it might seem like magic when Robinson uses her bag of tricks to help struggling students make progress, the behind-the-scenes can be brutal.
Monday through Friday, the 29-year-old Houston native gets up, dons a carefully selected outfit (usually consisting of a vibrant oversized sweater, a high-waisted pencil skirt, dangly earrings and splashy heels) from her Pinterest-worthy clothes rack, tames her curly brown hair, puts on some mascara and vivacious red lipstick, grabs a Diet Coke and is out the door by 6:30 a.m. to drive 45 minutes from Allston to Lawrence.
When Robinson arrives at her job as a paraprofessional teaching assistant at Frost, she walks past the mural of the New England poet’s infamous two roads, heels clicking, and hauls in her magical Target bag.
“I don’t just teach with a pencil and paper,” she said. “I don’t just pull a lesson out of a curriculum box. I write all of my lesson plans very specifically for the students.”
After she finishes her work, she drives 45 minutes from Lawrence to Gordon College for night graduate classes. Robinson is working to get her master’s in education to become a reading specialist. Finally, when her classes are over and she is so tired she begins to slip into her Texan drawl, she drives another 45 minutes home, arriving between 9 and 10 p.m.
Then she settles down on the hardwood floor of her artwork-peppered bedroom, beneath a giant illustration of a little girl reading, and puts together more lesson plans.
“When I’m doing things like lesson planning or any kind of project, I pull it all out,” Robinson said. “It’s all on my floor so that I can see it in front of me and pull different materials while I’m creating the lesson plan. I’m a visual learner, too.”
Robinson doesn’t own a printer, so sometimes she walks half a mile just to print the material for her lessons.
But if she’s pulling over 15-hour-days, when does she sleep?
“I don’t,” said Robinson, laughing. But she doesn’t let that slow her down.
Robinson got her bachelor’s degree in child development from Brigham Young University-Idaho. At first, she planned to do social work but she quickly developed a passion for teaching, specifically children with disabilities.
After working at the Dyslexia Center of Utah for four years, she decided to get her master’s degree. Now, she’s in her final semester of classes, managing her teaching job and maintaining a 4.0 GPA, which she noted is a recent development, since her passion for her career partially stemmed from her own scholastic problems.
“I didn’t struggle necessarily with reading but I did struggle with school,” Robinson said.
The oldest of seven and a self-identified perfectionist and teacher pleaser, Robinson watched her siblings and classmates lazily succeed in getting straight A’s while she would work hard and maybe scrape a B+ together. She would ask her mother why she didn’t get good grades even when she worked so hard.
The problem followed her all the way through college. But art and fashion were — and are — her solace.
“On the days when it’s hard to get out of bed, things like picking a cute outfit and Diet Coke get me out of bed,” Robinson said.
During her undergraduate education, Robinson took a spontaneous trip to Australia where she found body-inclusive fashion that helped accentuate her curves rather than shame her for them. She came home with her first high-waisted pencil skirt and never looked back. Since then, she has built a wardrobe so large it doesn’t fit in her bedroom closet.
Though she doesn’t have much time for art now, she still finds time for fashion and photography on the go and keeps up a blog and an Instagram to show off her fun outfits and express her adoration of the British royal family.
“It’s super funny. The King, Prince Harry and all that,” said Sarah Elizabeth Shill, a Boston University French horn performance student and Amanda’s roommate. “That’s her thing. That’s what she does in her free time. She studies their outfits and she just checks on their lives and what they did today.”
Robinson carries this fairytale whimsy with her into her teaching, though she knows her students’ lives are far from fairytale perfect.
“Today, my expectation from my boss is to teach this specific curriculum but I had three students show up that hadn’t had breakfast,” Robinson said. “We’re trying to make sure that the kids eat, that they have shoes, that if their backpacks have holes in them, we sew them up. And we’re just getting paid to teach them math and reading.”
According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Massachusetts is the fifth highest paying state for public school teachers, at a $76,442 average in 2016.
Robinson and her colleagues semi-jokingly refer to teaching as “the unprofessional professional,” because the state expects them to be hyper-qualified but parents see them as glorified babysitters.
For instance, you can teach in Massachusetts without a master’s degree, but to get a professional teaching license in Massachusetts, candidates need to get a bachelor’s degree, pass the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL), complete a state-approved teacher preparation program in the area, get a master’s degree in education and earn a National Board certification in the area in which he or she is teaching.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a huge balancing act of ‘which fire am I going to put out today?’ It is all the time. It never lets up,” Robinson said.
For a fairly thankless profession, the little thank yous — like the little pink valentine Robinson got from one of her students, scrawled in curvy, kindergarten handwriting, with little circles above the I’s — make it worth it.
“thank you for teaching me everthing I learned is for you. thank for by the best teacher ever [sic].”