Isabel Morales rode the bus for hours back and forth to elementary and middle school. The Boyle Heights resident realized that schools outside her community provided better opportunities for learning, but she didn’t understand why education differed depending on the neighborhood.
It was this realization that inspired Morales to go into teaching and eventually get her doctorate degree. This year the Los Angeles Unified School District named Morales and 19 other teachers “Teacher of the Year.”
The Council of Chief School Officers chooses teachers who show “exemplary and creative teaching, which helps make a difference in the lives of their students, their school and the community.”
Morales, 33, has been teaching high school for 10 years, the last six at Los Angeles High School of the Arts at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. She teaches government, economics and Advanced Placement courses.
Born in Michigan, she moved with her family to Los Angeles so her father could pursue a music career. Morales first lived in Hollywood and then in Boyle Heights. After attending First Street Elementary School, she attended magnet schools in the Valley and Hancock Park before returning to the neighborhood to attend Bravo Medical Magnet High School.
After high school, Morales attended UCLA, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as her teaching credential. In 2011, she went back to school and completed her doctorate in education at the University of Southern California.
This year, Morales also was designated a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, a professional development opportunity for 25 outstanding teachers that includes an expedition with National Geographic Explorer.
In a letter to the graduating class of 2014, published on boyleheightsbeat.com in June, Morales said she’s counting on new graduates to play an important role in the community, and “paving a path for others to follow.”
BHB Reporter José Barber spoke to Morales about what inspires her and her accomplishments.
BHB: What were some of your challenges growing up in Boyle Heights?
IM: I wasn’t involved in any of the gangs or things like that, but my neighbors were. So even though we weren’t part of it, that put the rest of my neighbors in danger. It didn’t happen that often, but now and then there would be a drive-by [shootings]. That was normal for us. Another thing was poverty. I couldn’t ask my parents for anything because there was no money for that. I loved to read, but we didn’t have the money to support my reading habit. So I would go to the mall’s bookstore and spend all day there reading books from cover to cover. Back then there was no bookstore in Boyle Heights. That was a big struggle for me, because I loved to read.
BHB: How do you think things are similar/different today in Boyle Heights?
IM: Where I live, there is a lot of tagging, and I realize that this is [still] gang territory. There are a lot of people who love this community, and they are building it up–people who have gained skills and want to offer more resources to the community. There are more resources now, but the community still needs help.
BHB: How did your personal struggles influence your decision to become a teacher?
IM: Since I didn’t go to schools in this area until high school, I would compare the education that I was getting — having books and field trips — to what my sister was getting at Euclid Elementary. So that motivated me a lot, because I saw what I was doing in school and what they were doing, and I knew that it wasn’t fair. Kids everywhere, even if you have a low income, still deserve a good education.
BHB: Was there was a person who was a major influence in your life growing up? Who?
IM: It would be my mom. She worked three jobs, and I didn’t see her. I would take care of my sister. My other role model is my uncle. He was a teacher. When I was on vacation, I would go with him to work. That got me to love teaching and youth. He’s the one that got me into reading.
BHB: What is your advice for kids that are going to be the first ones in their families to go to college?
IM: To believe in yourself. It can be hard. Try to reach out to people in your class with the similar situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
BHB: In your letter written to the graduating class of 2014, you said your purpose in life is to provide other students with the support and guidance that you once received and expand their notions of what is possible. How do you plan to do that?
IM: I try to lead by example. When students see me, and how my life is, I think it helps them see that you can come from humble beginnings, and not turn your back on your community.