Faculty Spotlight: Tamra Excell "A Super Hero Rebel Who Created Online Personalized Education"
This blog post comes from Tamra Excell, VP of CMA-SAS. She shares her story of how she came to be an advocate for student-centered learning. She's a superhero rebel who created Online Personalized Education.
Tamra’s Journey: A Superhero Rebel Who Created Online Personalized Education
“And how might this event impact the hero on his journey? Tammy?” I immediately stopped writing so I could answer the question, and with ease that surprised my middle school language arts teacher who thought she was catching me not paying attention. We were a week into a novel that I finished the first day, and I was more than paying attention; I was writing my own story, applying stylistic concepts I learned, combining it with the other dozen novels I had read that month. As for the hero’s journey, that is a favorite topic I like to apply to real life. We are all on our own journey, each on a unique path that should be respected.
Just as in the stories I read, my journey included both special powers and monsters. I often felt like an anthropologist in my own culture, marveling at the natives who, in turn, found themselves marveling at me and my lack of assimilation. I perceive the world in a unique way, both philosophically and literally, and life experiences – including a violent childhood - only heightened these traits.
I never subscribed to social hierarchies and other conventions requiring blind conformity, including that of the public school I attended. From my earliest memories, I saw everyone as being equally human – both fallible and worthy of love – and applied this to both students and educators. Friends with anyone friendly, I ignored cliques and pedestals – including the ones people tried to put me on. I also have always required a clear purpose for any task or expected behavior. Not motivated by gold star foil stickers or their equivalent, I always needed something more meaningful. “What’s the goal?” is a question people learn to expect from me. “Because I said so” or “that’s just how it’s supposed to be” are never acceptable answers. And even if the goal is agreed upon, the path to that goal is a separate conversation.
I also have a “super power.” Neurodivergent, I perceive and process information in a sometimes intense way that can be advantageous for learning and creating. I’m a synesthete, crossing perceptual modalities and even abstract concepts. For example, each number, letter, month, and day of the week has a color, gender, and personality. Sounds, especially music, have colors and textures. So will your personality once I get to know you. Perceptions are sometimes amplified - with sounds, textures and scents proving overwhelming. When preparing to write this post, ideas formed in the air, some moving through me to hover behind me, others clustering together as I saw their connections. Suddenly tired, I closed my eyes to more easily sink into the ideas without the distractions of the physical world. Yes, I literally work in my sleep!
When allowed to learn and work in a way that meets my needs, I can absorb information and produce work at a greater level. Other than those moments of sleep-working, I am usually moving; a standing desk and pathways for pacing are ideal, along with a large table or floor space to spread out. I will take the ideas in the air and map them on graph paper so others can work with me. The challenge for me is to clearly communicate the many connections I am making in my head, sometimes including concepts for which spoken language is limited.
I learned early that not everybody understands this way of perceiving. I remember asking my grandmother what gender the ring finger was since it wasn’t clear to me like the other ones were. “What? You’re a girl. They’re all girl fingers.” I continued staring at my fingers, wondering why I felt she was wrong, and I decided to not ask certain types of questions. By the way, years later I would learn the word “androgynous.” In public school, I remember feeling intellectually stifled by being forced to sit in a hard desk for hours each day, and I most enjoyed classes that allowed for movement and active engagement with the task at hand. Meanwhile, if I wanted to sit quietly with a book, why not outside on the lawn, or better yet, up in a tree?
The monsters are not something I want to spend too much time on here, but they played an important role. Being a survivor of child abuse and other forms of assault, and having to engage in physical battles to protect myself and family members, are definitely things that impacted my ability to learn and engage in school-related activities. My biological father was traveling the country from one job to another and was unaware of what was happening. I remained quiet because I didn’t want to be separated from my half-brother, and I was warned of the far-reaching consequences of breaking that silence.
I really should have slipped through the cracks.
One of the reasons I didn’t is because a school principal refused to let me. Robin Emmingham became principal at the elementary I attended, and the same year I moved to the combination middle/high school, so did he. I just couldn’t get rid of the guy. He knew my dad’s side of the family and seemed to take it upon himself to keep an eye on me. I would appreciate this later in life. Thanks to him, I was enrolled in classes that challenged me and enriched my education beyond the typical choices, turning learning challenges into special skills. I found myself attending musicals, enrolled in clubs such as drama and problem-solvers, and participating in off-campus learning conventions. During my senior year, I only had to take two classes on site, and the rest of my learning was on a job site earning work-based credit.
Where the principal noticed me, the counselor didn’t until near the end of my time there. When Pre-SAT, ASVAB, and IQ/capability test scores came in, she called me into her office to inform me that I earned the highest scores in my class, and was only outscored in some areas by one other person in the school. While her voice and face expression seemed negative, her words sounded positive, so I smiled at the news. My smile quickly faded when she began scolding me for not having a 4.0 GPA, and proceeded to lecture me about priorities. My legs started to give out as I began to cry, and I proceeded to tell her about those monsters. Outside of the school walls, I had little time for homework; I was too busy just surviving. The silence was broken, but it would take a few more years to free myself.
I am thankful for both the principal and the counselor, and the many other educators who were part of my journey. The result of even the negative experiences is a well-rounded perspective that gave me what I needed in order to go into education as a change agent. After earning my teacher certification, I jumped immediately into working with at-risk youth and developing personalized education programs in various forms. I especially connected with neurodivergent students and found myself becoming an advocate for student-centered education, using online technology to facilitate that process. I experienced growing success, but that didn’t prevent my own daughter from facing adversity. What happened to her was an important turning point in my own life. I was motivated before, but now my passion and drive was all the more fierce. And that is its own story.