One Veteran Teacher Shares Lessons Learned Along the Way
As we prepare to head back to school, Cora Elisara (Mississippi Delta '10) reflects on lessons from her corps member experience that she carries with her today.
As the child of two educators, TFA alum Cora Elisara knew from a young age that she wanted to be a teacher. Growing up in Oregon, however, she little imagined that she would start her teaching career in an elementary school in the Mississippi Delta, where almost all of the students were Black.
But that formative experience more than a decade ago had a profound impact on the trajectory of Cora’s career, and the way she approaches teaching.
She ended up in Mississippi in 2010 because the Teach for America recruiter she met during her senior year at the University of Oregon had just finished a two-year stint there, and convinced her it would be an unforgettable and eye-opening experience in a place with extremely high needs.
“He showed me pictures of him and his students and families at weekend barbecues and I was like, ‘oh, that’s a whole new idea.’”
It intrigued her, so she put the Mississippi Delta down as one of her top choices, and that’s where she was assigned – to Hazlehurst K-8 School in a town by the same name.
Less than 24 hours after graduating, Cora was on a plane to Jackson. “That first week I got to go to a BB King concert, and the first weekend we had our first catfish cookout,” she said. “For a half-Chinese girl from a part of Oregon with very little diversity, it was a big, exciting change.”
Cora said that from Day One she was learning at least as much from her third-grade students as they learned from her. “I went into teaching to help kids learn. And it was this immediate realization of oh, my gosh, I have so much to learn,” she said. “It took me time to realize how to be transparent, showing them that I had a lot to learn from them.”
That transparency helped form close bonds with the students, she said, and her success in making her students into Oregon Ducks fans created a good-natured rivalry that brought her and the parents closer together.
Forging close bonds with parents wasn’t something Cora had thought much about before landing in Hazlehurst. Sure, her parents were always close with her teachers, but she assumed that was because they were teachers too.
But in that first year of teaching she came to realize something.
“Just as much as I needed to create a relationship with the students, I needed to create a relationship with the adults, and for us to all get onto the same page.”
Cora also soaked up the experience of a veteran third-grade teacher who had grown up in the community, and who chanted her lessons to students. That helped them memorize important facts and formulas. To this day, Cora uses chanting, “my math rolling rap,” with her students.
“That’s one of my favorite things I carry with me every day that I teach,” she said.
At the end of her two-year TFA stint, Cora was accepted with a full scholarship into the University of Mississippi’s Master’s Program in Educational Leadership. While there, she interned as an assistant principal at a local elementary school.
She also met her future husband, also a TFA-Mississippi alum, and a native of Washington. When he was accepted in a Master's program at the University of Washington in 2014, they moved to the Seattle area.
Since arriving in Washington, Cora has taught fourth grade at Silver Lake Elementary School in Everett. It’s a school where many of the students are newcomers to the U.S., from Ukraine, Colombia, Portugal, and many other countries.
If there’s one thing that has been a constant in Cora’s career, it has been changes of leadership in the schools where she has worked. At Silver Lake, she said, “I came for the principal but stayed for the kids” because there have been five leadership changes in her time there.
But if she learned one thing from TFA, it was to focus on “what is in your locus of control today?” Regardless of what happens in the principal’s office, Cora said she has learned over the years to make her classroom a stable space.
“I have become so comfortable with creating agency in my classroom. I can control that and keep all my kids safe within this classroom door.”
School leadership still calls to her on some level, but Cora can’t bear the thought of not being in a classroom with kids. “When I figure out how I can, as an administrator, maintain a relationship with kids, then I’ll be ready,” she said.