Skip to main content

Alumni Supporting Adult Learners

By Whitney Stoepel-Brewer

October 5, 2022

My name's Elisabethe, so the E is not silent. I always get that question. I did the Corp in 2018 here in the City of Chicago. And I have been in education for about seven years. I've taken on various different roles. And from very early on, I knew where I wanted to kind of zone in, which was in education, but I just needed a lot of support in identifying what did that look like for me? And so, I took on various different roles where I worked with non-profit organizations, supporting students with their postsecondary planning and transition from high school. I made my way to Teach For America and was a special education teacher and case manager for four years. And just recently, I actually took on a different role outside of the classroom, where I'm now the Director of Diverse Learning for an alternative high school in the south side of the city.

“I think it's so important to always remember your motivation, especially when you are working in an large Institute, like education.”

Elisabethe Ocon Calderon

Director of Diverse Learning, Excel Academy of Southwest

Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana Corps Member 2018

I think it's so important to always remember your motivation, especially when you are working in an large Institute, like education. There's so much that needs to change and it can be very overwhelming. I think for me, I have very personal motivations. For me, the stories and experiences of my parents are my number one motivation. I come from a very traditional Mexican immigrant household. And so, my parents' stories and their journeys with education is kind of my top tier. My mom didn't even finish third grade. Of course, we're talking about a different country, but these inequities existed there as well. And so, I've seen her have to maneuver a new country with very limited understanding of her own language as well. So, that has been a huge impact. My father came to this country when he was 15 years old and he didn't come to seek out educational opportunities, but rather to support this financial insecurity that existed in his family in Mexico.

And so, their stories really kind of motivate me and remind me of the work that I do. And I think now throughout my years in education, my students and the students that we serve... It's such a cheesy answer, but they really are the main motivation. I have been very privileged to see the impact of fighting for these injustices and fighting for equity in the classroom and outside. And I've been able to see the direct impact that it has on our students that we serve. And so, I always say our students are the ones that have the tools for change. And all we're doing right now is we're placing a hold for when they're ready to take on this journey. And so, the students are always at top of mind, those that I serve directly, and those that don't know who I am, and I don't know who they are, but they're always at top of mind and the motivation to seek a better education system.


When I was reached out about the opportunity with the Rise Fellowship, I really took it upon me to reflect as to what the space was going to offer. And why I decided to join the Rise Fellowship is because at the end of the day, I'm still a learner and a student. And I think it's so important for us as educators to continue learning from each other, from our experiences and our stories, and to come together as a community and know that we're all in this together. We might be separated by schools, by districts, but we have very similar missions and goals. And so, I really wanted to take the opportunity to continue building that community and for myself as a learner to have the space to reflect on everything that was going on. When I joined the Rise Fellowship, I had been teaching virtually for a year, almost a year and a half.

And I think for a while, I forgot my motivations and also what I was fighting for or what I was working towards. And so, bringing a lot of educators from different experiences, different schools together, brought that spark back and also helped me realize that I wasn't alone in these times that we were facing. And so, the impact that it had on me is it really gave me the opportunity to recenter myself in the work that I do and to hone in on my anti-racist practices and continue that work and that unpacking. And on a very personal level, it really had me thinking about what is next. Right? What is my role going to look like outside of the classroom? Because I was kind of looking for that already, where I knew that my fourth year in the classroom was going to be my last, but not necessarily my last in education. So, really just kind of honing in on what kind of leader I wanted to be outside of the classroom.


It's so crazy to think about how my journey throughout Rise and the Rise Fellowship, because a lot of things changed. So, when I started the Rise fellowship, I was a special education teacher and a case manager. And we were teaching virtual and there was a lot of challenges and barriers with that. Throughout my time as a fellow, I had to take a really or make a really hard decision of leaving the classroom and the school that I was currently at. And that was a really hard decision to come to and there was a big wave of guilt that came along with that, but being given the opportunity and the space to connect with other educators during the Rise Fellowship really had me thinking about what was I scared of? And that was a really personal and scary conversation I have with myself because I knew that I wanted a role outside of the classroom, but there was a lot of reflecting and unpacking that I had to do as to why was I so scared to take the next step?

And I think a lot of it came down to leaders didn't look like me. When I would walk into spaces with administrators, they didn't look like me. That was really important for me to unpack of that intimidation piece. And what we focused a lot in Rise was talking about leadership and leaders of color and what did that look like being an educator of color. And towards the end, I kind of had the support of all of my other colleagues and I took that really big jump and started applying and just looking at other positions that I can take in education. And I was given the opportunity to kind of start this new journey as Director of Diverse Learning for an alternative high school. And I know that a lot of that journey and that unpacking had to do with just being a fellow and being given the opportunity to collaborate and be in community with other educators.


“Identity is such a complex thing that it's really hard to not bring our identities into the work that we do.”

Elisabethe Ocon Calderon

Director of Diverse Learning, Excel Academy of Southwest

Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana Corps Member 2018

I mean, identity is such a complex thing that it's really hard to not bring our identities into the work that we do. For me, I'm a Latina woman, I'm a queer woman that has learning disabilities and mental health disabilities. And so, these different parts of my identity always kind of center me and remind me of the work that I do, but more importantly, they make me become very intentional. Especially now as a director, I bring them with me when I'm having to make very intentional decisions or actions because I work in a community that I can relate to and connect to. And so, I always think about what kind of spaces and how intentional do I want to be with the spaces I create. Just like kind of I alluded to earlier, there's a lot of administrators or leaders that don't look like me, and I think that when we think about the spaces that we are creating, these spaces are not created to support the communities of color, but rather to intimidate them.

And so, I always want to kind of remind myself of my identity and the work that I've done and the work that my parents have done in my family to create those spaces where our families and our students, and even now our educators, are feeling supported. And we know we're kind of building this larger community that is not just one space, but multiple, to be able to fight for educational equity and pursue that overall goal. 


That's such a loaded question because there's so many things. But I think for me, if I'm kind of thinking of my current role and just my roles in special education and diverse learning, in some shape or form, I really want to work on making the impact of accessibility. And that can look and sound like so many different things, but throughout my experience as a special education teacher and case manager, there were so many families and students that I served that were intimidated by the system of special education.

There was a lot of misinformation or just misconceptions of what does it mean to have a disability, a learning disability, to receive services. And I really want to work and make the impact of accessibility, all the way down to the more technical things of making sure that these documents are actually translated in the languages that we need. Working in CPS, some of the documents are translated in Spanish, but there's so many other different communities that we serve that are under the radar that we're not even acknowledging. So, I really want to work on making it accessible and having these conversations with our families and our students about diverse learning and what does that mean? And I think my second kind of overall impact or goal is to really work on normalizing diverse learning. It sounds so weird to say the term normalizing, but we live in a country, in a society that doesn't acknowledge students with disabilities or people with disabilities.

And so, I think it's so important to start bringing these conversations outside of our classrooms and our IEP or 504 meetings and into larger conversations. From my own personal perspective, we live in a education system in this country that pretends to acknowledge students with disabilities, because systemically there's so many different challenges and barriers. And so, I hope that 10 years from now, whatever school or space I am in, that we can have the conversation of what does our student need to be successful versus what are the resources that we have in our school to provide, because they're so limited. So, I hope that at the end of those 10 years, we can start shifting those conversations to talk about the needs of our students and not what do we have to offer because we're so stretched thin.