“My goal is to change how our education system treats children of color”: Q&A with Melissa Schachner, MEd ’12
Working to address the achievement gap and meet students’ needs are the types of challenges that administrators and teachers face on a daily basis. Melissa Schachner approaches these challenges, and many others, with passion and determination. Schachner is a principal at Bridger School in the Portland Public School District and she is one of our distinguished alums who earned both her bachelor’s degree and MEd from Concordia University-Portland. Learn more about this Featured Cavalier’s journey in our Q&A.
What inspired you to work in education, first as a teacher and now as a principal?
Looking back on why I became an educator, there are two very important events that put me on this path. The reason why I knew I wanted to be a teacher was Outdoor School. I attended a total of seven times, once as a student and 6 times as a counselor. I loved being outdoors and teaching. These weeks are some of my favorite high school memories.
The second event is not as pleasant. I was working as an educational assistant at my children’s school. A teacher would pre-fill a referral slip each day so that when I was in her class for reading she would yell and then whip out the referral and give it to me and tell me to take this boy to the office, even though he was doing what other students in the class were doing. I hated walking him down to the office knowing that he was missing his opportunity to learn to read. Other staff members and I asked the principal to do something about this teacher, but nothing ever happened. She taught at that school for over 20 years, harming so many children. This event started me on a path to administration. My goal is to change how our education system treats children of color.
What made you choose Concordia University-Portland for both your bachelor’s and master’s degree?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in education and my MEd in Education Administration from Concordia because of the importance of relationships. Each class was small and you really got to know your instructors and peers. There was an abundance of support. I also liked that I could go to school in my neighborhood and near where I worked. Because I had such a great experience getting my bachelor’s degree there, it just made sense to continue with Concordia for my MEd.
What skills did you gain or hone as a result of these programs?
Although I had been working in education, I had the practice without the theory. Concordia’s programs have helped me learn about many different theories of education and craft my pedagogy.
What, if anything, did you appreciate about Concordia’s faith-based values?
Previously, I had only attended public schools. I appreciated learning about not only the Lutheran Christian religion but all faiths. I appreciate how seamlessly religion and teaching can align, especially through service to others.
You recently became a principal. What has that transition been like and what’s been your biggest takeaway?
Becoming a principal is the hardest job I have ever had, and that includes being in the Army. One thing that became crystal clear this year is that I must lead with love, meet people where they are at, and help them on their journey. Only then will people make changes necessary to ensure all students are successful.
When you were an assistant principal at Sabin K-8 School, you worked with staff to address the racial achievement gap and helped implement academic and social-emotional supports for students. Can you share a bit about that?
To close the racial achievement gap there is internal and external work with staff members that must be done. Only by doing both will our system of education change.
For the internal work at Portland Public Schools, we have done a really good job of learning and talking about our own thinking about race, using Courageous Conversation Protocol.
For the external work, I starting learning and implementing Response To Intervention (RTI) at Vernon as an Instructional Specialist in 2012. I continue to learn and grow my understanding of how to create a system that supports students where they are and in a challenging and engaging way. The blending of RTI and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) into one holistic approach is now called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and it is what we worked on at Sabin, and I started at Bridger this last year.
I recommend the book Opening Doors: An Implementation Template for Cultural Proficiency by Trudy Arriaga & Randall Lindsey to learn how to incorporate culturally responsive practices to create an engaging educational system for all students. I also recommend Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Blending RTI and PBIS by Kent McIntosh & Steve Goodman to learn about MTSS.
What keeps you motivated and passionate about education?
Our schools are doing a disservice to our Native American students. In the Portland Public School District (PPS) around 50% of Native American students do not graduate each year. This is why our education system must change. One important step is Senate Bill 13, which calls upon the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to develop a statewide curriculum relating to the Native American experience in Oregon, including tribal history, tribal sovereignty, culture, treaty rights, government, socioeconomic experiences, and current events. I plan to support the implementation of this bill in my district.
Was this an obvious career path for you?
No, I am an introvert. If I had my choice, I would be at a library on a comfy chair reading all the time or in the back of the classroom. I love to learn. I have worked very hard on the extrovert skills needed for this job, but I have a long way to go. Being an introvert and doing public speaking and engaging with people is very difficult but my passion for changing education keeps me trying each day.
What do you still hope to achieve?
I want to lead Bridger to become a school where all students find their passion, achieve their dreams, and become global citizens who think critically and act peacefully to improve our world.
Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She’s served as the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland and is now the managing editor of Concordia’s Room 241 blog.