Coy Garrett never intended to be a teacher. Then one meeting changed everything.
While working as a mental health specialist for a Dallas non-profit, she offered an elderly acquaintance a ride to her grandson’s school meeting. She attended to offer support.
“No one spoke to us or greeted us,” Garrett recalled, guessing that the school team assumed she was a family member. “There were lots of acronyms, references to student reports as data and lots of talking over [the grandmother’s] head.”
As soon as Garrett realized they were discussing an Individualized Education Plan, a required document for receiving special education services, she stepped in. She asked critical questions about relying on student opinion in an official report and suddenly the environment changed.
“There was a whole different level of respect. By the end of the meeting, the [attending staff] were [the grandmother’s] best friend,” she recalls.
Returning home that night, Garrett called her mother, still in disbelief about the lack of respect afforded to the woman.
“I told my mom I wanted to make sure no one was ever treated like that again,” she said.
Soon after, Garrett applied to earn an alternative teaching credential and started her classroom career in 1996. In 2002, she began her current position at Yerba Buena High School, teaching a self-contained special education class for ninth through 12th graders.
Garrett’s teaching philosophy involves suspending judgment and avoiding assumptions. She thinks of people as blank slates, taking time to teach instead of criticize.
On the sunny Friday morning we sat down for an interview, a football flew through her classroom’s open door, hitting my arm before it tumbled to the floor.
“Are you okay, honey,” she asked, noting that it’s a recurring problem. She set the ball behind her desk then asked the teenage boy that came to fetch it to have his teacher come and get it with him. He protested that it wasn’t his fault, and Garrett replied kindly, “I didn’t say it was you. But I do want to talk to your teacher.”
Seamlessly returning to the conversation about her teaching philosophy, the East Side Union School District teacher explained that it’s family-oriented—parents are invited to be as involved as possible and her classroom is made to feel like a home.
“I teach them respect and that they’re wonderful just as they are. I want them at peace when they get here, but I’m a stickler for discipline, too,” the 2015 ESUHSD Teacher of the Year said.
Over her lunch, Garrett emanated kind-heartedness—students and teachers dropped into her classroom frequently, and she greeted each one with affectionate nicknames, hugging colleagues and offering gentle but firm reminders to lagging students about where they should be.
“You’re going to go?” she asked one hesitant boy after he told her he couldn’t go to his next class. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart!”
Beyond her classroom obligations, Garrett also serves as the Black Student Union advisor.
“I make more time to spend more time with my BSU students so I can see their academic, social and emotional needs,” she explained, later mentioning that she makes herself available to all of her students and families “on-call, anytime.”
“Teaching doesn’t stop when the bell rings,” she said. “The commitment, compassion and love extend far beyond that.”
Because of teachers’ dedication to families and students, Garrett believes her profession is a place where overtime is expected, but not compensated.
“Teachers aren’t respected in the pay range because they do so much from their heart. There is an assumption it will all get done because that’s what teachers do.”
While Garrett explained that she’s not in a state of lack, she described her shock at rental prices that she said could buy a mansion in her native Texas. Teachers here make less than half what’s needed to buy a median-priced house in the South Bay and are recovering from five years without raises during the recent recession.
She budgets carefully: “Lessen the list of splurges, go with necessity, plan ahead, and be thoughtful so you still work everyday and feel like you can live life by doing things that interest you.”
Amid hanging drawings and student photographs, Garrett sat tall behind her door-side desk, her green-jeweled earrings swaying in animation as she continued, “teachers are givers and it’s distressing to know you want to help, but can’t.
Even still, her job feels more like a gift than work. “My students are the most wonderful, precious people in the world and I am so grateful,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing.