Meeting Kadalena Abraham for the first time is like glimpsing your first hummingbird — the buzz, the bright flashing of colors.
“Wow, what was that?!” you say.
Infused with a baffling supply of energy drawn from who knows what wells, she carries into the classroom a big personality that fairly strains at the seams of her small frame.
“I am definitely five foot three on a good day,” Abraham said with a laugh.
Bubbling over with ideas, spontaneous. Abraham’s also a self-confessed “jokester,” who loves to laugh with her Rainier Middle School ESL students and is not afraid to laugh at herself.
She’s the teacher we all wish we’d had at least once when we were young.
That is to say, Abraham is the polar opposite of the aloof instructor who reveals nothing about who she or he is outside of class. Indeed, she takes great pains to ensure that students know her, know what drives her, her taste in music, her curious love of pirates, her passion for dancing, where she comes from, where she’s going.
Everything that’s in her, she puts out there for her students.
But like hundreds of other teachers throughout the ASD, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 9, Abraham greeted her students not at school, where she and they would have been in any normal year, but from home.
She, a face on a computer screen in her apartment, they, faces or voices from their homes or apartments.
Distance-learning in the midst of a global pandemic is not what any teacher would have chosen, especially an extroverted one so finely tuned to the vibe of her students as she is, a teacher who draws as much energy from them as she does and seems to gather strength as the day rolls on.
“I am always trying to have a positive, bright, warm relationship with my students, and I think my students can see that the first time they meet me. They know that I am a jokester. I am very forward, and they know I want them to succeed,” Abraham said.
So, she is optimistic. She approaches the task with the same philosophy she brings to the classroom: her kids don’t need to speak the same language she does to read her facial expressions and to feel love and happiness in class.
So why, she asks, should teaching online be any different?
She is counting on the intimate bond she formed with her students in her first year with the ASD to make it all work.
“Lots of teachers are fearful about not being able to build a relationship with kids online via Zoom meetings,” Abraham said. “I definitely think it’s possible. We just need to put in the effort. But as a teacher, if you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like effort. So, I am going to have a treasure chest, and the students are going to guess what’s in the treasure chest. I may have a picture of a ukulele in there, and on Friday I’ll play my ukulele for the students. And I am going to buy a beta fish, so we’ll have a tank for the beta fish and it will be our class pet.”
Yes, she admits to a few butterflies in the stomach, but at the same time she is “thrilled because this year is going to go down in history, and I want to be among the teachers who are positive about it, the teachers who are willing to learn new strategies,” Abraham said.
“Educators everywhere are flipping the switch and genuinely changing their thought processes on teaching, and education and building relationships. There are a lot of pieces, and it’s going to take a bit more work, a different style of work. We’re in a tragic era, but we’re pioneers.”
Abraham, who grew up in Arizona, is the fifth of seven children, with four older sisters and two younger brothers.
“I’m not sure there was any ‘ah-ha’ moment when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. My first job was as a birthday party host at a bowling alley, with a lime green shirt and a silly hat. Then I worked at daycares, and I did summer camps and nannied and babysat for years, so I was just always around kids, all different ages,” Abraham said.
A 2016 graduate of Arizona State University, she has been in the Seattle area for almost three years. She first taught special education at an elementary school in Bellevue before landing her job at Rainier Middle School.
“I love what I am doing,” Abraham said. “My students are so diverse, it makes my job enticing and incredibly rewarding. Of course, I love the ‘ah-ha’ moments with the students. But I would say the best part is just making a difference. I need to teach students who also need me, and there’s a form of mutual respect with that because I am not going to ask the students to respect me if I don’t respect them.
“My students want to be here, they want to learn English, and they need a sense of welcoming because a lot of them come from war-stricken countries, and I am one of their first outlets of comfort and welcoming in the United States. That just feels rewarding and, honestly, critical to their success. Some of them may not have the best home life, so it’s incredibly important to provide that safety net at school,” Abraham said.
Abraham’s first year with the Auburn School District, to put it mildly, was eventful, marked not only by the onset of a global pandemic but also by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed.
“My students were worried, and they were asking me questions, not only about COVID-19 but about a lot of social justice issues,” Abraham said. “That is when I stepped out of my comfort zone and decided it was not okay to be quiet on a lot of issues. So, I asked my students if I didn’t say anything about the issues that were happening in the world, whether that be COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement, would they respect me? And they said they wanted to know about the things that were happening around them.”
So when schools physically closed last spring and social justice protests began roiling the nation, Abraham decided she’d do something for her students.
To let them know, she said, that she was there for them.
“I thought it was important to be part of the change, so I hosted a 3-day demonstration in Auburn, and I invited other teachers and community members and students to come and demonstrate with me and stand on the side of the road holding signs saying, ‘We care about our Black students, we care about our brown students, and all of our students are the best,” Abraham said.
After school, over three days in June before summer break, more than 200 people joined her at the intersection of 8th Street Northeast and Auburn Way to wave their signs and raise their voices.
No organizations were involved, no famous people showed up.
“I wasn’t going to call it a protest because we weren’t necessarily protesting anything. We were just demonstrating that teachers cared about their Black students and all of the boys and girls in our community,” Abraham said. “It was a very safe demonstration. We all wore our masks, we all socially distanced … I made sure it wasn’t a school event, I made sure it wasn’t a district event. It was just me doing what I was doing, and my students said, ‘Wow, Miss Abraham, that’s cool that you did that.’
“We only live once, so why would I be afraid to change the world?” Abraham said.