When Whitworth University professor Lisa Laurier was a young woman in college, she was studying for her LSAT and making plans to become a lawyer, but instead became an educator with numerous advanced degrees.
Laurier’s extensive work in education has earned her the YWCA Women of Achievement award in education. She will be honored, with other women who have selected for Women of Achievement awards, during a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 4 at the Davenport Grand Hotel, 333 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Tickets are $125 and can be purchased by calling (509) 789-9312.
Laurier was attending the University of Redlands, a small private school in California, when she studied in France during her junior year. She was required to do an internship at a local school and found it really interesting.
An English professor finished her conversion to teaching when she asked Laurier to be her teaching assistant during her senior year. She ended up teaching portions of the class and her professor encouraged her to become a teacher.
“I ended up completely changing my path in that last year and a half,” she said.
She got her bachelor’s degree in English and French, then got her master’s degree in teaching. She worked as a teacher in Southern California for seven years before she and her husband moved in search of a climate that didn’t exacerbate his asthma and allergies. They settled in Flagstaff, Arizona, but there were no teaching jobs to be had.
“I couldn’t even apply for anything,” she said. “It was really sad.”
She got a job in the World Language Department at Northern Arizona University and decided to take advantage of her tuition benefits and started work on a master’s in comparative literature. “About halfway through I realized I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” she said.
She wanted to get back into schools, so she started a master’s in educational psychology with dual certificates in school counseling and community mental health at the same time she was still working to finish her first master’s degree.
She worked as a high school counselor for four years, but found the job stressful and wanted to get back in the classroom. She spent a year working as a counselor half time and as a reading recovery teacher half time. She discovered that many children, no matter how old, struggled with reading.
During this time a friend of hers with dyslexia was working on her doctorate in science education and needed help because of her reading problems. Laurier decided to take classes with her friend so she could help.
“By the time she was done I had a semester and a dissertation left,” she said.
Laurier got her doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a focus on early literature acquisition and the diagnosis of reading problems. She was inspired by the children she had worked with who had trouble reading, plus a young man she knew as a teacher in Southern California.
She spent several summers working with high school students with reading issues. One in particular, who was 21, couldn’t pass his competency exam to get his diploma. The young man said he wanted to graduate and work in a garage, otherwise he would probably become a criminal like the other men in his family in the gang-infested area where they lived.
Laurier said she felt ill-equipped to help him even though two summers of hard work led to him passing his exam. It was the memory of him that helped push her to finish her doctorate. “Nothing feels worse than not knowing how to fix that, for me,” she said. “He was probably why I stuck it out and finished it.”
She was hired at Whitworth University eight years ago and her various degrees have allowed her to teach a wide variety of classes, including the diagnosis of reading problems, Holocaust literature, school counseling and English. She was named the department chair of the Teacher Education Program last year.
“I have not had a very linear career path,” she said. “I like teaching. Whether it’s little kids or big kids, I just like being a teacher.”
She has launched a professor in residence program at Evergreen Elementary in the Mead School District. She teaches college classes there, and she and her students work with the elementary students as part of the program.
She took a sabbatical a few years ago and offered to work for the school district for free for a semester. She worked at Shiloh Elementary and Brentwood Elementary and learned that there was not enough support for students who needed one-on-one or small group work to help with problem areas.
She ran her program in Shiloh Elementary for the first two years, learning as she went. “We had no model, so we were making things up,” she said.
She’s been working in Evergreen Elementary for the past five years. Each student gets regular diagnostic testing and weekly assessments that allow the constant fine tuning of whatever help each student needs. The difference can be seen in test scores, Laurier said. “The changes have been significant in a lot of areas,” she said.
The key is to catch and rectify learning shortfalls early, she said.
“To do that really well requires a lot of bodies,” she said. “Most schools don’t have enough human or financial resources to do that.”
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