Cochrum reflects on past teaching experiences

May 24, 2016 — by Amith Galivanche and Austin Wang

A few years ago, one of science teacher Lisa Cochrum’s students approached her in April with shocking news — he would be moving to Denver for the remainder of the school year. His father, Mike Nolan, the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers, had been hired by the Denver Broncos to become the team’s  new defensive coordinator.

Cochrum, who said she “really could care less” that her student’s father was a professional football coach, urged him to stay for the remainder of the semester.

“To rip you out eight weeks before the school ends? That’s just stupid,” she had said. Her students tried their best to retain their laughter; some of the boys were about to fall out of their chairs. Few could believe that Cochrum — a Bay Area native — didn’t recognize the name of the 49ers’ former head coach.

Cochrum has always been able to accept students — and treat them equally — regardless of their backgrounds. She first experienced this sense of being accepted as a student herself at Palo Alto High. As a teenager, Cochrum and her mother, a single parent, were able to buy a house in Palo Alto by what she called a “miracle.”  Despite her struggles, Cochrum was still treated the same as the other students at her school, something that to this day, Cochrum is grateful for.

Nevertheless, going to Palo Alto High School, coupled with her Attention Deficit Disorder, meant she felt intense academic pressures — the same stresses that many of her students face today.

“There was a ton of competition, which was really damaging for my psyche and my self-worth; I just came out really demoralized,” she said.

Wanting to free herself from the constricted environment she felt during high school, Cochrum started to work in 1992 as a student teacher at an elementary school in San Leandro following her graduation from Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

The environment at the school on the outskirts of Oakland was a far cry from the wealthy suburb where she had grown up. By the end of the year, three of her eighth graders were pregnant, and many boys in her class had older siblings who were in gangs. Most of her students, she said, fell into two general camps: either they cared dearly about their education and focused on absorbing the lessons, or they just wanted “another blow-up lab.”

A master teacher at the school, a teacher who assists student teachers, offered to take Cochrum under his wing.

But, when her adviser’s wife became pregnant three months into Cochrum’s position as a student teacher, Cochrum was on her own.

“Things would happen in the classroom and I would think, ‘I could have this all under control,’” Cochrum said. “[At other times], I would think, ‘Oh my God, I’m totally doomed and am going to die when he leaves.’”

Once, when an eighth grader refused to take his seat in class, Cochrum followed teacher protocol and repeatedly asked the student to take his seat. As he remained standing, Cochrum moved closer to him while pointing her finger close to his face, threatening to send him to the vice principal.

“After the student sat down, I thought to myself, ‘I’m awesome! I rock! I’m the best teacher ever!’” Cochrum said.

However, after “bragging about how amazing [she] was” to her adviser, Cochrum learned that the student, who was on his second strike with his probation officer, had been exposed to violence at home and in the community; if he had been provoked and acted out, he easily could have been hauled back to juvenile hall — not the result she was hoping to achieve.

“Since I almost blew it, [my adviser] told me that I was the luckiest little girl on the planet,” Cochrum said. “That experience changed my perspective and showed me that I don’t have the street instinct to teach in a community that I didn’t grow up in.”

After one semester in Oakland, Cochrum applied for a science teaching job at Saratoga. With her experience at a high pressure school, Cochrum walked into her job confidently in 1993 at the young age of 23.

“Many of my friends were intimidated by a school like Saratoga, but when I walked in, I was ready to bring it,” she said. “I purposefully don’t ask my students what their parents do because I just don’t want to know. All I want is a room full of kids who are treated the same.”

Though Cochrum advises new teachers to “see the entire breadth of what education looks like,” she has found her home in Saratoga High. Her humor and caring approach along with her flamboyant personality and unique teaching style were recognized when she was named the district’s Teacher of the Year in 2010.

“I always remember that kids are kids, no matter where they’re from,” Cochrum said. “I came ready to hack the pressures of being in this community, and that attitude has served me well.”

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