If you want to know what resilience looks like, look at Tamara Frazier.
A Riverside Unified School District Teacher of the Year, Frazier has had her share of setbacks, course changes and yes, actual punches. None of them have stopped her, not even a rigorous Brandman University Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program whose first immersion session had her in tears.
As her friend and “one of many in Tamara’s fan club,” Brandman faculty member Jalin Brooks said, “Tamara is always ready for success.”
Frazier works with some of education’s most challenging students. She’s a special education teacher (and Teacher of the Year) at J.W. North High School in Riverside, California. She doesn’t work with developmentally disabled students, however. She works with students with emotional disabilities, teaching math, biology, Earth science, vocational education and health skills. Her students can be dealing with serious mental health issues (schizophrenia, depression) and behavior issues.
Her first job as a teacher was in a locked-down unit. “They challenged me in ways you would never understand. At the same time, they made me a better person, emotionally stronger. Many came in not knowing how to read. They were in gangs and saw no other options. At the end of the year, they were reading, writing letters to family and talking about what they wanted to do with their lives. That was the most rewarding for me,” said Frazier.
She’s continued teaching emotionally disabled students ever since.
Frazier knew she wanted to become a special education teacher while still in high school. As she was approaching her junior year, her neighbors asked her to babysit their 6-year-old son, Devon, who had Down Syndrome. It opened her eyes to how being treated as “normal” by his family – he had chores, he had to read to her and practice talking to overcome speech problems – changed how she viewed people with developmental delays.
It was not all sunshine and roses, however. Devon was a high-energy kid who sometimes reacted by hitting her and running from her. “But every night he would give me a hug and say, ‘I love you, Tamara.’ Those words were so clear. I would leave so exhausted but so rewarded. I looked forward to seeing him again,” she recalled.
When it came time to pick a major in college, it was the image of Devon’s face that popped into her head and propelled her toward special education.
Plenty of educational support
Frazier knows she was fortunate growing up. Both her parents were successful. Her father was the first black vice president of a bank, the San Diego Trust and Savings. Her mother worked for San Diego Gas and Electric and eventually opened her own mortgage company. They instilled in her a sense of financial responsibility (she had a savings account by the age of 10). They visited college campuses. More importantly, her father her father would take the family for a drive through San Diego’s rougher areas, making up stories about how the people they saw ended up there. The moral of the story was always “if you don’t get an education, that’s what you’ll have to do.” A college education, he told them, was how you avoided that fate.
In addition to her parents, Frazier names three teachers and a counselor who made all the difference to her in high school.
“Irene Outlaw taught English and also was my track coach. I believe from the first time she met me, she saw something in me. I knew she believed in me,” said Frazier. Outlaw encouraged the “kind of shy” freshman to write and to present her writings in class. She encouraged her to join clubs and run for student council.
Louise Pearson, Frazier’s 11th-grade AP English teacher, took over where Outlaw (who left to complete her doctorate and returned to become the principal) left off. “It was almost like a double teaming. They encouraged me to stay in student government. When there was an application for a specific college or a scholarship, they made sure I knew about them.”
Frazier said she was not the smartest person in her class but being pushed by Outlaw and Pearson, as well as her counselor Pat Hyde and her government teacher, Ida Williams, she stayed on the honor roll.
She remembers telling them as graduated that she didn’t know how to repay them and being told in return, “You’re going to go to college. You’re going to graduate and you’re going to get a graduate degree. And before you leave, you’ll become a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority,” to which they all belonged.
She did and she still seems them at sorority conferences. “I remind them of everything they did for me.”
After high school, Frazier was all set to go to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, when she discovered she was pregnant. Instead of heading to Alabama, she became a mother. She and her infant son eventually headed to UC Riverside. Why Riverside? They had family housing. Her baby boy (now a graduate of Alabama State University and a parole officer) even went to class with her. She has another son who is now a junior in college.
Frazier uses that pregnancy experience and overcoming unexpected obstacles to let her students know that they can overcome their own challenges. “I let me students know so that they can see I’m human, too. Even if someone says, ‘you can’t,’ you have to believe in yourself.”
“The expectations that I have for myself are the same expectations that I have for all my students. There will always be minor setbacks along the way. It’s OK to cry or become emotional. Just don’t quit there. Get up. Push through and conquer your dreams,” wrote Frazier in her PowerPoint introduction to her Ed.D. cohort.
A new challenge
The Ed.D. program, said Frazier, is once again testing her resolve and giving her another way to relate to her students. “I show them my homework,” she said. She’s also teaching them APA writing so they’ll be prepared when (not if) they go on for master’s degrees.
As in high school, Frazer finds that the support of others – in this case, her Riverside campus Ed.D. cohort – helps keep her going. She’s also discovering that the program’s emphasis on transformational change and the requirement to create a transformational change project forces her to lead. “It’s not only making me have more confidence, it’s allowing other people to see capabilities that I have. I can’t even put it into words,” she said of the program.