Tina Skuce, Teacher Induction Liaison and Mentor
A grinning Tina Skuce greets me on her doorstep with a big hug, and we settle in at her family dining table, which overlooks a big green field. In flowing blue, Tina seems to have found the best nook in the house for a serious work station. Spread out on the table are a copy of her first children’s book, the luminous ‘Like a Life Jacket,’ published May 2016, and remnants of its production, from blooper-pages to early-stage concept sketches. The book itself boasts classic-looking illustrations that revolve dreamily around a poem, and instantly reminds me of Robert McCloskey but with more color. Behind us, Tina’s husband Charlie steps in with a big bucket of oysters and begins shucking them at the sink, while their dog Mika watches from her bed. Just before I hit ‘record,’ I notice that Tina is sitting below a chalkboard wall-decoration that currently reads,
‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.’ -Winnie the Pooh
Ian: So before we start, can you tell me about your current role in the school district? Because it’s a huge part of how I’ve always seen you, but it’s cool to have you officially ‘that’ right now.
Tina: Yeah! This is the second year I have served as a TOSA or Teacher on Special Assignment. You know for years I enjoyed—as much as having students in the classroom—I enjoyed working with my student-teachers and usually had at least one or two every year. And I dreamt about having the opportunity to perhaps do the work full-time, never imagining that the district would choose to create a position for a full time coach to support new teachers as they worked on clearing their credentials.
So, one day, the opening popped up and I thought, oh my goodness—isn’t that what you’ve always thought you’d like to do? Go for it. Now, I mentor the new teachers entering the classroom with the support of the Teacher Induction Program led by the County Office of Education.
Ian: So, what is the official title there?
Tina: I am the Teacher Induction Liaison and Mentor.
Ian: That’s amazing. And it’s so funny to me, because people reading this will not know, but my first classroom I ever walked into in a teaching role—which started a giant snowball of activities and completely changed the direction of my life—was your fourth grade classroom.
Tina: Oh my.
Ian: And I remember that very, very well. I remember the wall outside of your classroom, for some reason, and I remember little paper packets of things on the wall, and also sitting on the floor with your kids. And I don’t remember quite what we did, I just remember feeling like not only did you ‘see’ every kid in the room—and there were lots of them—but you ‘saw’ me, too. And that was such a cool thing because I was like ‘man, I don’t know a lot of teachers that I’ve had who could play both sides of the field so naturally.’ And now, that’s what you do. Which is so cool to me. It was personally very exciting when you told me about this new job. I was like, ‘Ohh, of course.’
Tina: Aww. That was a great summer together! I was inspired by your approach as well. I think it was a special moment in time for both of us.
Ian: That was a great summer. So about how many years have you been teaching?
Tina: So, I was in the classroom for about 31 years or so. I lost count. And when I began…wow… I never imagined that I would be at it this long. I do know that I like to change it up every few years. I’ve taught first through sixth grade in two districts and three different schools. And now I’m working in five schools within the District.
Ian: Spreading the love! What other jobs have you had, besides this? I mean, at any point in your life.
Tina: Well, when I was in high school I worked in retail sales. The Limited was one of the most fashionable places to shop at that time. Then I worked at a bank for quite a while during college.
Ian: I didn’t know that.
Tina: Yeah. And that was back in the day when technology was just beginning to emerge. I worked as a teller after quite a long time as a check verifier. I sat for hours with a small team in a room and verified checks…signatures, dates and dollar amounts.
Ian: Verification? How did that work?
Tina: Well, each and every check was reviewed by a human. Yes! And we would look at each signature on a check, to determine whether, indeed, that was Ian Walters’s signature on Ian Walters’s check. Were the dates matching? Were the dollar amounts written in word form and standard form matching? Was the check endorsed by a payee? Was the date on the check post dated or stale dated? Can you imagine that? Then, we would bundle up the checks with monthly statements and mail them out.
Tina: But that was a long time ago.
Ian: And yet you had to be meticulous, and graphically very hyper-aware. And you also had to be very personable on the other side of the job, all of which fits you.
Tina: So the funniest part about it is when a little boy wrote an unkind note years later in my class, I said, “You know, I am a handwriting expert.” Sure enough, my skills came in handy (laughing). Case solved.
Ian: Perfect. So you’ve been a master k-6 teacher for over thirty years. And though you have just published an astonishingly beautiful children’s book, I’ll bet—and I could be wrong—that you still think of yourself as a teacher first.
Tina: I think so. But it’s interesting, as much as I thoroughly enjoy working in a classroom, I never thought it would be the only work I would do. I always thought there might be something else I’d like to explore.
Tina: But…I do remember playing ‘School’ all by my little self as a child. I had imaginary students.
Ian: How old were you?
Tina: Oh my goodness, probably you know, seven, eight years old. And I dreamt about a lot of different types of things I’d like to do in life. But it always came back to this, to teaching.
Ian: Well, today I’m curious about Tina Skuce the artist. Because listening to your recent interview, this incredible piece of art that you created was not a quick process.
Ian: Really it sounds like it was an incredibly long process, and thinking to myself about what that would do to me, if I had that thing just sitting in my hard drive and in my head all the time…I don’t know if I could have handled it. But tell me a little bit about yourself from the perspective of writing, and creating. Even when you were a kid, did the creativity pop up? Is this a new thing, completely? Or have there been whispers of this?
Tina: I think there have always been whispers of it. Words and language…you know, I think that words and language have always been fascinating to me. The sound of words. I am inspired by really meaningful phrases or quotes. I enjoy playing with words and the beauty of language between people. Communication patterns. The sound of foreign languages are so fascinating to me.
Ian: When you were a kid, did you find yourself writing at all?
Tina: I did find myself writing. I always enjoyed making books, or writing, or creating. And I find that right now, as I am getting older, I’m noticing how I find joy in the same way I did as a child.
Ian: What do you mean?
Tina: As a child, I always used to paint rocks and sticks, and sell them, or give them as gifts. I was forever creating and giving, and creating and giving. I found that creative process to be a form of exploration.
Ian: But you always gave them away to people.
Tina: Yes, always. In fact this (holds up her new book) was created as a gift, originally.
Ian: Tell me more about that. Because that’s also a beautiful part of the story of this project.
Tina: Right. You know, initially, creating this particular piece was effortless. I’ve heard songwriters say, ‘This song just came to me one day. It took about ten minutes to write.’ And that doesn’t even seem possible, does it? It feels like writing should be a more difficult process. But this particular piece was written in just that way for a family member. It was written as a fortieth birthday gift for a man who really had everything in life. There really wasn’t a more fitting gift than one from the heart. I watched him. He was an amazing father and a very kind human being, who just saw the good-ness in everyone. And, I observed how he nurtured his daughter.
And so, I sat down and I just thought about his relationship with his child and how it made me feel. The words fell out of my heart and onto the page. I framed the whole thing as a poem, and gave him a set of matching life jackets, one for him and one for his two-year-old daughter. I’m not sure, as a 40-year-old father with a two year old, that he really understood the sentiment at the time. Later on, he became a single father and said to me, “Oh my. Now I understand. The life jacket.” We move through all types of water in life.
And so I gave the original to him as a gift. But for about ten years, copies lived in my lesson plan book, on my desktop and among my files. It just always whispered to me. I didn’t know what I might to do with it. There was no plan to publish a book. I did dream about it, and believed it could someday make a beautiful book with the right illustrations. As a result of new life experiences—one being my journey to study Writer’s Workshop at the Teacher’s College at Columbia–I was inspired to finally do something with it.
Ian: I’d love to hear more about that, I don’t really understand what that is.
Tina: So, at Columbia University, there is this wonderful, wonderful army of brilliant educators. They’ve been working diligently for decades to develop and grow Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. This collaborative effort is led by Lucy Calkins. I attended the Teacher’s College with my grade level team about five years ago with the goal of implementing Writer’s Workshop into my practice.
Ian: Were you still in the classroom at that time?
Tina: I was still in the classroom, yes, I worked with first graders at the time. I was so inspired that I changed up my entire process. My whole approach to teaching children what writers do became an inspiration to me as well. And so, I found that as I was working with them, I was learning alongside my students.
But something didn’t feel completely authentic. I was talking to them about what readers and writers do, but I felt as though it was my responsibility to show them that I was learning and writing along with them. I started to become a public learner.
Ian: What do you mean by a ‘public learner?’
Tina: That I was learning, too, openly in front of my kids. As educators, we can inspire as we model our own ongoing learning process. My students needed to know that I didn’t have all the answers. We learned from one another, but I was there to guide them—like a life jacket…perhaps.
In the beginning, they didn’t know I was doing this work (on the book) with Peter Harris (my illustrator). Yet, there was an interesting flavor and essence about what I was doing with the project that found its way into the classroom that year. It must have been the fact that I was as excited about the creative process as my students were. Workshop became our work and play. Room 7 served as the workshop for my students.
At the same time, my kitchen table became my own private workshop. My friend calls this adventure my secret life (smiles). And so, one day I finally shared my book with them—but it was a proof-copy. I cried. They applauded. We laughed together at the bloopers, and I went ahead and worked on it the rest of the summer. I promised them the next time they saw it, it would be in final form. We imagined how each of us could create our own workshops at home during the summer break.
Tina: When I finally read it in final form, I cried once again, because I had never read my own work publicly. I wondered if it would be received well. The public reading rendered me breathless, but the children wanted to hear it again. And I just…oh my gosh…I couldn’t believe the feeling of actually reading something of my own to an audience. You know… I’ve read children’s books for years to so many students. But reading my own piece, I just…(gestures).
Ian: It was totally, completely different. That’s so interesting to hear you say. I mean, you said earlier ‘As I get older, I find myself reverting back to childhood.’
Tina: The things I enjoyed doing as a child. Finding myself reverting back to simple pleasures. My husband is a diver (Charles Skuce is a brilliant abalone free-diver, and is appropriately barehand-shucking oysters at the sink throughout this entire interview). He is a free diver and scuba diver. And when he was a little boy, he loved to swim for hours.
Ian: I didn’t know that about Charlie.
Tina: Yes. And he would spend hours below the surface of the backyard swimming pool. He loved to explore all aspects of the ocean. And now, he finds a sense of youthfulness, and a sense of peace while diving. I feel like this is my own exploration in life. So this is my ‘diving.’ Each of us have rediscovered the natural place we liked to play during our childhood days.
I don’t know what’s coming next with this project. I don’t know what wave might hit me (laughs) and it can be scary to be out there exploring and creating. But this adventure brings me the same sense of excitement and pleasure as the play I experienced as a child.
Ian: It’s funny to reflect that as teachers we ask kids to be ‘public learners’ all the time. It’s the expectation. And that’s terrifying for them sometimes. I think as adults it’s strange to go from being a kid—who’s just exploring, diving, or playing, in the way you painted rocks, making things and giving them away. But those were things that were every bit authentic as what you’ve just done, with this book. Because maybe that’s what we know and feel is right to do, as humans.
But it seems like as adults, it’s such a battle for us to let that authenticity back out into the open. And yet, we ask kids to do it all the time. And so the idea of being a ‘public learner,’ and what it sounds like you took from the Teacher’s College, listening to you it sounds like it was one last little key that unlocked that authenticity again for you.
Tina: (nodding) It was a switch.
Ian: Which is so cool to me because as a student, you trust your teacher so much. And trusting somebody who is also taking a big risk, I think that could feel very special for a student.
Tina: That’s why I wanted them to believe me. I wanted them to know that what I was telling them about being a writer was something I was practicing. Trust.
And you’re right about…‘giving things away,’ I’ve never thought of it that way before. Because as children, we draw pictures and we give them away. And with this particular project, one of the realizations I had this week was so huge. I’m so glad we’re talking about this, because I recently discovered that I had stopped listening to why I created this in the first place. And my head began listening to what people were telling me. And so it’s When’s your next book? You must be ready to retire now!
Tina: The messages I hear are about, maybe, compensation and moving on to the next project. But the greatest joy has come from all the stories I’ve heard about how this book has made people feel. And how it resonates with readers. The greatest gift is knowing that there are hundreds of people that have this book around the globe, and that somehow, it’s touched them. I know it’s not going to touch everyone in the same way or at all– that’s art–not everyone takes pleasure in every song that’s been written. But, I never imagined this. It has surpassed my dreams.
Ian: Do you think there are more teachers like you, teachers who have a creative dream, tucked away on their hard drive, that don’t ‘go for it?’
Tina: I think so.
Ian: Why do you think that is? What is it about teachers that…?
Tina: Well, it’s fear, for one thing. It is so scary to do this, and it’s hard work after a long day, and I think that’s a big part of it. I’ve heard a lot of teachers say Oh, I have this book in me.
I think that we also package ourselves up. You asked me earlier Do you still see yourself as a teacher, primarily? Well, I see myself as me. And what I do for a living isn’t necessarily all that I am.
Ian: And that’s double-tough with teaching, because it’s a profession—as a young teacher—I see sometimes that it can be a profession that…the more you live for your students, the better of a teacher you can feel. And that’s really rough, because the other side of that coin—for a full, living breathing human with additional goals—is that you can get an incredible feeling of purpose and reward for sort of…putting your own dreams on hold, day to day. And that’s very different, I think, for most people, and certainly I’m interpreting that feeling my own way.
I don’t see teaching and personal dreams as mutually exclusive, by any means. But when you’re in teaching…there’s a danger of it not feeling completely authentic for you as a person to not get this book out (gestures to book), for instance. And there are many others like you. Is there a link, do you think, between creativity and good teaching?
Tina: I think yes. I think that teachers for the most part are very creative human beings. I mean if you think about it, we’re creating our own environment daily. Our classrooms are uniquely different. Take a look at what is displayed on the walls, or the seating arrangements…how many offices allow workers to create their own environment beyond the desktop?
Ian: Never thought of it like that.
Tina: You have to be creative every single minute. A teacher is constantly considering: Do I deliver my message in this way, or in that way? Who did I miss with this approach? How I can reach a particular child in a different way? Should I introduce this lesson in small group or whole group? Would it best to to…So there’s a creative thread throughout every single day.
And I think this is why I’m inspired by what you’re doing with this blog, Ian. What you believe about expressing authenticity and showing that is so important. Our identities seem to shift as women, parents, teachers.
So I think this (opens book to a brilliant blue ocean scene) was a way for me to dive deeper—ironically, here it is with the water on this page. I am exploring and rediscovering what brought me pleasure as a child. Now that I am not taking care of my children, now that I am not taking care of my house…new breath. New life. And at the same time, I find great joy in knowing that I have this piece of me to share with others.
Tina: And joy in learning alongside my students. Truly…going through the paces with them.
Ian: Knowing this now, and experiencing this kind of blazing moment of growth in your own life, in a totally different direction—and yet also kind of the same direction as teaching, but just different—what do you hope for your mentees? These brave new teachers who are so hyper-focused on ‘getting it done,’ ‘being a teacher,’ ‘becoming a teacher’…do you talk to them about this part of you at all?
Tina: Without a doubt, I’ve been fortunate to work with really open-hearted incoming teachers who are very talented and skilled…it’s amazing to see them during their second year compared to the first year. During the first year a teacher is just trying to coordinate and take in everything. It’s just like trying to drive a car for the first time. You’ve got to figure out all of these components and mechanisms…it’s not very smooth in the beginning. But their determination and wonder and enthusiasm and sense of pride is infectious. Students love their new teachers. And during the second year, teachers seem to hit the ground running with all they have learned. It’s such a gift to observe their growth.
Tina: That’s how I felt with my new role. I was like a new teacher again, even though I’d hosted student teachers, I experienced a new learning curve.
You asked what I hope to pass on. The greatest message I have to offer is to take care of yourself. As passengers on a plane, we are instructed put on our oxygen masks first, and then place them on the children. (Ian laughing) Right? And I think that if you watch us, sometimes we are running around putting oxygen masks on everyone…and we end up forgetting about ourselves.
Ian: That’s brilliant. Listening to you speak, it seems like art for you is almost synonymous with ‘growth’ in your own life. This is a huge step in so many directions for you, and has brought joy and comfort to so many people, and it’s a beautiful piece of art—
Tina: Thank you.
Ian: And I think about art in my own life in a number of different ways. It seems like your art is directly tied to growth. But I’m interested as well in what you mention about teacher health.
Ian: Because that isn’t the first thing on everyone’s lips when they talk about teachers, is it? And yet, teachers are in many ways ‘first responders’ for everything. The second a kid walks into your room, you are directly responsible, in so many ways. And I struggle with that as a young teacher, understanding the enormity of that responsibility. And yet, your book is about knowing that you always have a life jacket, and especially when you’re afraid.
What is the link for you between art and feeling healthy, and not afraid?
Tina: I’m so glad you asked that. Because right now, that’s the greatest concern that I have. Not just about new teachers, incoming teachers…I think about educators in general.
When you say first responders, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t realize until I left the classroom how physically draining and exhausting the work really is. I was just so entrenched in the work. It doesn’t mean you don’t love what you do. But some educators feel as though if we mention or acknowledge the demands, that it means we don’t love what we do, and there’s a huge guilt factor.
And now that I’m at the end of my career as an educator, I can speak for those (laughing ruefully) who are following me because it’s really hard to advocate for oneself. You know I started at age 22, so I didn’t quite have a frame of reference (Tina and I point to one another and nod significantly, as I also started at age 22) for what it’s like to work elsewhere.
But I found that when I stepped out of the classroom, I noticed all the symptoms I was feeling in my body had diminished. Because you’re right, we’re taking on—and especially if you’re highly sensitive—we’re taking on each child’s anxiety, fear, struggle…anything that’s going on at home, anything that is weighing heavily on them, it comes in and we just soak all of that up. I think that it is important for us to begin to think about this (gestures widely, meaning teaching) a little differently. Because our world is changing. Demands are changing, while our responsibilities as teachers are increasing in the classroom. And it’s an ongoing conversation I have with colleagues right now. So this is a really important time.
Ian: But against all of that, you created. You chose to create. That was one of your responses to these pressures. What would you say as a final word to teachers who aren’t quite sure what to do, facing the things that teachers are facing right now?
Tina: (long pause) Slow down. Stop. Be still. And listen to what your heart is telling you, not what your head is telling you. Surround yourself with a group of people who help you celebrate personal and professional growth. Secure your life jacket.
Ian: Thank you.
Tina: You’re welcome.
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