Mother-daughter pairs in Carson City schools teach, reach together
Sabrina and Michele Cacioppo teach at Carson Montessori Charter School. Sabrina leads a second-grade class in her first year while Michele moved to first grade after teaching kindergarten for 20 years. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)
Mother’s Day might be a little more low-key this year coming out of the pandemic, but the celebration is no less special for at least four Carson City moms and daughters working daily to help students succeed. The following four duos affirmed this past week the value of having close family members in the Carson City School District with similar interests as teachers or education support professionals in previous capacities as they’ve completed their college degrees, pursued their Nevada exams, National Board Certifications or acquired their Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) or other licenses, bounced ideas off each other for the classroom to help their students or simply have been there for each other in life and to celebrate Mother’s Day in traditional ways – or not – by choice.
Making a difference: Amy and Alyssa Jensen Amy Jensen entered teaching later in life, having come from a long line of educators already and not wanting to pursue it as a career herself. Thankfully, when she realized she could make a difference for children, she also had her own daughter, Alyssa Jensen, to help make it alongside of her. “I got my bachelor’s degree when I was 40 and I was subbing and thought I could make a difference for kids,” Amy said. “So I got my master’s degree in teaching and started teaching at Eagle Valley Middle School.” Her daughter, Alyssa Jensen, started at about the same time, having studied at the University of Nevada, Reno and received her license, once taught piano and worked a number of jobs, most of which impacted children directly. But she said she wanted a family and teaching full-time would put her on the same schedule as children. The two women were National Board- and TESOL-certified together. The mother and daughter looked to each other for encouragement through one of the most strenuous processes a teacher could experience with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). “It’s great to have somebody to bounce ideas off of or to have struggles with,” Amy said. “We have very similar teaching styles.” “She’s a lot more organized than I am,” Alyssa admitted. “I can do the creative or execution part of it. We can really support each other in anything.” There’s also a bonus for the Jensens with Amy’s other daughter Kylie also continuing in the family business of education, she said, as she prepares to student teach at Mark Twain Elementary School in the fall. Having that family closeness has been a comfort to them, the two agreed. “We’ve both taught in different content areas, and we’ll remind each other of different books or under different programs we know we can bring back,” Alyssa said. This year has been especially difficult with COVID-19 and seeing the struggles students have gone through, and Amy was reminded if she didn’t come back and help as a teacher and mother, who would? “I just think it’s been such a difficult year … and the most difficult year I’ve ever had in education and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other kids,” she said. “I think on our hardest days, and hybrid was our hardest that I could ever have imagined. And knowing that (the kids) need it and knowing that they craved coming to school, even though it was so difficult and the distancing was so difficult … we were cramming things at them so hard. “They were so happy to be at school and even to see their friends and to be with other kids,” Amy said. “That’s probably it for me, just the closeness that you have with the kids this year because of the other difficulties.” Alyssa said providing consistency during this time helps as a team with her mother, even in the little things like showing kids that there’s always a capital at the beginning of sentences. “We were able to provide that, and it felt really important this year,” she said. For Mother’s Day, the Jensens agreed the real highlight is that Amy “doesn’t have to cook,” she said, “the same as my birthday tradition.” “It’s a very low-key day,” she said. ‘A better buddy:’ Kathy Brown and Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer, Comprehensive Life Skills teacher at Eagle Valley Middle School, says growing up with her special needs brother and watching her mother, Katheryn, or Kathy, Brown, of Bordewich Bray Elementary School, tend to him became her love about working in education. “Everything we went through with him – Special Olympics, Movers and Doers – I think I learned where my people are,” Palmer said. “Special needs is my focus, my passion, I love it so much.” Along with the Jensens, Brown and Palmer are among 19 National Board Certified Teachers from the NBPTS in the Carson City School District announced as of March. The honor is the profession’s high mark of achievement earned through a rigorous process and demonstrated through an educator’s proven impact on student learning. Brown was a stay-at-home mother taking care of both of her children in the 1980s. “I figured I was the only one who could really take care of my son while he was in school,” she said. She became a parent helper at Fremont Elementary School and was offered a part-time position until becoming a paraprofessional. When Palmer was old enough to work, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and took on the same position. Eventually, the mother and daughter worked together for a year at Carson Middle, working in special education. They also spoke of needing each other as special education teachers specializing and adapting in the classroom suited to their CLS students. “When you work in CLS, there’s nine self-contained classes in the district, it’s really hard and everyone’s needs are different,” Palmer said. “I’m glad to have someone to bounce ideas off of, too, like, ‘I’m really struggling with this behavior’ or ‘I’m struggling with adapting work for this kid, what would you suggest?’ Everything makes more sense. That support makes having this job so much better.” “I don’t know any other world,” Brown said. “I was a parent in CLS. I was a paraprofessional in CLS. I can go in a gen ed (general education) class and it’s like, I don’t get this. … Our gen ed teachers, they don’t understand our language, either.” Brown said eventually they “ran out of students at Carson Middle School” but both had been teaching CLS classes at the same time. Brown would go on to Bordewich and Palmer would go to Eagle Valley. They would develop a “six-year plan” to “keep our kids.” “I don’t think I could go through school with a better buddy!” Brown said of her daughter. Palmer said for Mother’s Day, there’s a double header for baseball planned with her two sons, and Brown said she usually joins the family as a spectator. “There’s SPED (special education) and baseball … oh, and Disney when it’s open!” she said with excitement. ‘Superhero:’ Michele and Sabrina Cacioppo Sabrina Cacioppo says she has a “built-in” mentor with her mother Michele Cacioppo. She’s watched her mother interact and make a difference with kids, so it was natural to become a substitute last January herself in the first grade at Carson Montessori, Carson City’s charter school. “I love that mom is in education,” Sabrina said. “Beginning my teaching career during COVID has presented some challenges. It was nice to have a partner to bounce ideas off during the COVID shutdown. Now that I am teaching second grade at Carson Montessori, she has helped me build a routine, reach struggling learners and collaborate with me to create fun and engaging lessons.” Michele herself, who began teaching 20 years ago, said she chose the career to help kids thrive and learn to become who they are. “I chose this profession because I want to inspire children to learn, explore, wonder and most of all believe in themselves,” Michele said. The mother-daughter team at the school is among the school’s staff to provide some unique experiences for kindergarteners through sixth graders including student-led parent conferences, movement exercises, flag ceremonies and other culinary and robotics programs among its offerings. The Cacioppos in particular plan lessons such as book report projects to encourage their students to read. “We launched this activity by modeling book reports and dressing up each day as a character from a book,” Michele said. “We had so much fun planning this together that we are going to plan another book project together.” She added working with her daughter was so much fun she made the move from kindergarten to first grade after 20 years. Sabrina said her family sticks to a few favorite Mother’s Day traditions. “Every Mother's Day we make my mom breakfast and then just spend the day together,” she said. “We usually go on a hike and play games.” She added a final thought about Michele. “My mom is a superhero,” Sabrina said. “She is always there for us. When my siblings and I were younger, she would write notes and put them in our lunchboxes. Now, she will text us encouraging notes. She is one in a million. I am so grateful to have her as mom and mentor.” ‘Much braver:’ Marjorie and Tara Rispin Marjorie Rispin at first never figured she’d enter education. A life as a veterinarian or doctor sounded appealing when she attended the University of California, Davis. But then she married, had her daughter Tara and opted for a career that would allow her the flexibility to be home to raise Tara. “I went to Sierra Nevada University and got my (teaching) license,” Marjorie said. Marjorie is in her 28th year of teaching, having started at Seeliger Elementary School for a year and spent the last 27 years at Carson Middle School. She’s taught sixth and seventh grade math, sixth grade science, English as a Second Language and became an interventionist before transitioning to English and becoming a technical coach. She took some time off, but she’s also watched her own daughter make some career changes of her own. Tara Rispin, now in her second year of teaching officially at Eagle Valley Middle School, was an actress in Los Angeles and New York for a time, but said she held down a few positions teaching in California. “Teaching kind of runs in the family,” she said. “I don’t have to think too hard to teach, and you can only be a starving actor for so long – and my fiancé hated New York.” She would return to Carson City, where she grew up, promoted from Carson Middle and graduated from Carson High School in 2005. Eventually Rod Butler, now vice principal at Seeliger, would persist in telling her to pursue her teacher’s license after subbing for some time, Marjorie said. “At some point, you’re like, ‘I’m enjoying it, I might as well get paid for a more hourly rate than subbing!’ ” Tara said. “I’m always all in, and I probably work too much.” Marjorie said she’s proud of her daughter for going out into the world and trying other things in the big city and returning to teach. While she is close by, she still maintains her independence but still is around to talk to, and Marjorie said it is humorous that students recognize her as Tara’s mother. “I’m really proud of her for everything she’s tried out,” Marjorie said of Tara. “She lived in the big city for several years and did some acting all by herself. She’s much braver than I am. … She’s my rebel. She takes off and ventures out into the world. She always has a plan, always has a goal of what she’s going for.” For Mother’s Day, food is likely to be involved in some way, but Marjorie was certain Tara had “something up her sleeve.” “She gets me for Mother’s Day again,” she said, noting she has to figure out what’s in the area after having been away from the area for so long. “It used to be a FaceTime or a phone call for any holiday for so long.” “She’s got something up her sleeve,” Marjorie said. “It’s nice having her back to pal around again. … She entertains me.”