Texas Tech University

Alumna Shares Knowledge with Future Educators

Bailey Bales

July 27, 2017

Maribel's First Day

Irma Almager transformed her dissertation into a narrative publication to prepare teachers and principals.

Irma Almager
Irma Almager

After graduation, Texas Tech University students depart for jobs around the state, country and world. They help others using skills they learned at the university and spend each day improving and learning more. Sometimes, they come full circle and give what they learned back to Texas Tech.

Irma Almager came to Texas Tech with a hunger for learning, not only wanting to learn new things to improve herself, but to help others learn as well. She found her place in the Multidisciplinary Studies Program in the College of Education.

Almager worked hard throughout her career as a teacher, principal and professor to educate each and every student, particularly the students she noticed struggling. Many of these struggles weren't caused by disabilities, but by poor relationships between students and educators due to differences in cultures and backgrounds.

"Many times, teachers and administrators unintentionally create their own obstacles in the quest to help and shape students academically," Almager said.

Through her personal experiences and dissertation research, Almager began to piece together a story to help future educators for years to come, and that is the story of Maribel Rivera.

Maribel is a teenage, Mexican-American student. Her newest venture is her transition from high school in a small town to a big city. The book follows Maribel on her first day of school and works through her experiences with students, teachers, administrators and the school itself. At the end of the day, Maribel discovers whether or not the school environment contributes to her personal search to find her identity.

Maribel's First Day
Maribel's First Day
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Finding Maribel

Almager was raised in West Texas. Her Mexican-American family faced struggles in the education system due to their low income, migrant and English Language Learner status. She grew up in a time when racism and discrimination were still somewhat tolerated. Out of struggles and hatred came a woman ready to advocate for smaller voices.

During this time, progress was sweeping over the Texas Tech campus, including the College of Education. Almager made the decision to major in multidisciplinary studies and entered an environment full of innovative instructors and professors. She graduated in 1994, ready to help students just like herself.

As a teacher, Almager advocated for students who were marginalized because of race, sex, income and social status. Her passion to fight for social justice and equity, combined with a deep hunger for learning, led Almager to earn her master's degree. As a principal, she worked hard to create a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Creating a tolerant environment among hundreds of students and dozens of teachers proved to be no easy task. But that didn't stop Almager.

Several personal mentors encouraged Almager to return to Texas Tech to earn her doctorate, and eventually, she agreed. During her time as a doctoral candidate, she received the prestigious Jones Fellowship, which deepened her studies into culturally friendly school environments. Again, she worked with innovative faculty members, which led her to frame her dissertation into an autoethnography about her experiences as a student, teacher and principal. From the dissertation came Maribel.

Maribel's purpose

Almager graduated from Texas Tech in 2012 with a doctorate in curriculum studies. The College of Education had just received an i3 Investing in Innovation Grant to help students in the college flourish as teachers. Almager was given the opportunity to be the grant coordinator and set out to once again improve a new generation of educators, as she had done many times as a teacher and principal.

While she enjoyed her work with the grant, Almager had another goal in mind. She was ready to shape educators at the source. So when a position opened in the Department of Educational Psychology & Leadership, she jumped at the opportunity to apply. Many faculty and staff within the college had seen her remarkable work on the grant and were familiar with her prior work as an educator and administrator. After following the application process, Almager was hired as an assistant professor.

Almager began using the story of Maribel with her master's students to teach future principals the importance of data analysis and coaching teachers for growth. However, the use of her story transformed from coaching teachers to stimulating conversations about social injustice in school systems. Maribel was created by the need to facilitate important yet difficult conversations about race and poverty.

"Educational systems provide countless hours of professional development in content and pedagogy, but they miss the most important piece," Almager said. "They leave out the cultural piece that intentionally sets us apart because we see the world and everyone in it through our own lenses created by our own experiences."

But Maribel and Almager didn't stop there. The use of the book was universal to all future educators within the college. She began using the story with teacher candidates as well to help unpack personal biases. Together, Almager and Maribel highlight the importance of educators taking a step back to understand their feelings regarding behaviors of certain students.

"We all have biases and we must acknowledge them so when they emerge, we can recognize them and deal with them," Almager said. "Our implicit biases become a huge obstacle because they create the rules by which we lead and teach."

The Legacy of Maribel

The unpublished version of the book, "Maribel's First Day", is currently being used in the Principal Preparation Program. The official publication of the book will be used in the TechTeach Program starting in the fall semester and in education leadership classes in spring 2018. Almager will continue to use the book for the preparation of principals in education leadership classes, as well as helping undergraduate students become innovative educators.

The book features a foreword written by Almager's dissertation chair, Sally McMillan, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction, a context of the narrative, descriptions of the school environment and teachers, Maribel's story, reflective questions and the Teacher Knowledge Model.

Almager created the Teacher Knowledge Model from her experiences in the classroom and her studies. She lists three things all teachers must know in order to be successful in the classroom. The first is the content of what they're teaching. The second is pedagogy, not just encouraging engaging activities, but activities that fit the content and skill for the lesson. Lastly, teachers must know the culture of their students. This means not only the basic data of students, but their background and values as well.

"If we as educators are to fulfill the countless mission statements across the country that promise to educate " every' child, then we must prepare to educate every child," said Almager.

Several people have been credited for the quote, "Most people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan." Almager uses this quote as a motto, reminding herself and her students that teachers and administrators must be prepared to educate every kind of student. "Maribel's First Day" gives educators the practice and skills they need to be prepared to help all students succeed in a culturally diverse environment.

"Through " Maribel's First Day', educators can, if even for just a moment, discover themselves and make the necessary changes to bring cultural congruence to their educational environments," Almager said.

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