Changing the Game
By Claire Procter-Murphy
The day is December 3rd, and the chilly air nips at any flashes of ankle that appear below pant cuffs. On the cusp of winter, the weather is a catalyst for change, and sets a poetic tone in which to meet fifth-grade history teacher Lisa Speck.
“I was not a fan of social studies or history as a student….” Ms. Speck says, scrunching her face up at the thought. These words may seem odd from a social studies teacher, but they actually clarify her career choice; having been incredibly bored by the subject as a student, she seeks to improve the way it is taught for future generations. In her own words, “I like to think my own disinterest growing up made me want to make it fun, and interesting.”
Ms. Speck first encountered Arizona School for the Arts as a parent. After she spent nearly twenty years alternating between teaching and staying home with her kids, moving around a bit, and returning to Phoenix, her daughter became a student at ASA. From there, she filled positions as a long-term substitute and a life skills teacher before applying for a position in the social studies department the following year. “I loved middle school, always, because there’s so much change,” she says, rolling up the sleeves of her rose-colored sweater and leaning forward enthusiastically. “The changes in the fifth grade are huge,” she says, drawing out the last word and widening her eyes for emphasis. “There’s this tremendous growth—there are these kids from all different backgrounds, different experiences, who have only gone to their neighborhood schools. Now they’re switching classes, they have different kids in each class, the rigor is new…so there’s tremendous change from the beginning of fifth grade to the end of fifth grade, and to see students graduate!” she exclaims. She takes a slight pause, as though to fully grasp that idea before continuing.
“This is my…third? Third class to see graduate, having taught them in fifth grade, and I get so inspired to see that growth as well. And I feel lucky to work at a place with such an electric atmosphere. Three days into summer, I’m ready to come back again,” she says, leaning back in her chair with a slight chuckle.
Ms. Speck has remained incredibly dedicated to education throughout her career. Though she started in the field of journalism, childhood experiences as a camp counselor and lifeguard helped her realize that she enjoyed working with and energizing kids. Once she found teaching, she never stopped: “I love that teaching is always changing, depending on the needs of the students, the needs of the class, also the creativity involved…that I can harness that, and mold it to the students I have, and to make it fun and active. You know, it just changes every day. It’s always a continuous journey of learning, for me as an educator.”
After her brief foray into journalism, Ms. Speck earned her teaching certification in San Diego. She then taught middle school for two years before moving to Boston and teaching middle school ESL students in Chinatown. Though she values the different experiences she’s had while moving, there’s a reason why ASA is the longest she’s been in one place: “At ASA, I really feel valued and supported as a teacher. I feel like the students here are really unlike anywhere else.”
Eight years later, her lessons and teaching methods have left a lasting impression on students. One senior recalls, “I knew that the third quarter project was going to be terrifying, but she gave us all of the pieces we needed along the way to be successful. I liked that we got to choose our topics within colonial America—that made it fun.” Another recalls “really creative projects, like when we had to make artifact boxes for European explorers, and the videos she would show us to teach us about the Revolutionary War.”
For her, seeing what students go on to do is the ultimate reward for her teaching efforts. “I feel like I’m a piece, a very small piece, in some very great things that are happening and that are going to happen.”