The Transformation of Sister Isabella

I don’t remember my Kindergarten or first grade experience in detail. I only remember spending the days reading, painting, playing, and taking naps. I remember receiving lots of affection and caring from my first teachers, Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Murphy. All this changed when I was in second grade.

My parents enrolled me in a Catholic school and the first day started with arguments at home. I was ready to go to school and was wearing my favorite blue jeans and beloved Spiderman T-shirt. When I sat down for breakfast my mother explained that I had to wear the school uniform. She asked, “Do you remember when we went to buy the uniform? It is used by all the kids who go to your school. You also have to wear it.” I knew perfectly well that I had to wear the uniform, but I hated it. The shirt looked like a woman’s blouse and the pants were a shade of blue so horrible that I got chills putting them on. Worst of all was the shoes I had to wear. My parents had decided that I could not wear tennis shoes. Instead, my dad got me a pair of black patent-leather shoes to wear with my uniform. I was sure that all the children would fall down laughing when they saw me in this atrocious uniform and shoes. Though I made all the excuses I could imagine in a desperate attempt to avoid this fate, I left the house crying and complaining about the ugly uniform and the horrific patent leather shoes.

I arrived at the school and as I looked around, everybody else was wearing a uniform. I thought, “Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. At least I don’t have to wear the girls’ uniform, theirs is even worse!” Then I noticed that all the boys had tennis shoes on. Nobody but me had the disgusting patent-leather shoes. I tried to make myself invisible and prayed for the day to end quickly. When the bell rang, the door to my room opened and my teacher, a nun named Sister Isabella, came out to greet us. I had never seen a nun so close and I was amazed. She was tall, pretty, and elegant. Her brown habit was stunning. She seemed so perfect and beautiful that I imagined that the Blessed Virgin Mary had come down from heaven to play the role of my teacher. Unfortunately, this vision was not going to last for long.

The first months passed without incident. School seemed easy to me because I already knew how to read, write, and do calculations. I finished all my assignments quickly and often found myself with nothing else to do. There were four other boys who sat near me that I gravitated to. Before long, I became very good friends with Jerry, Troy, David and Felipe. As soon as we finished our assignments we would talk. Sister Guadalupe reprimanded us for misbehaving and for distracting the other children. She warned us that if we did not behave she would punish us. I didn’t think my beautiful and heavenly teacher would really punish us, so I kept doing what I had been doing. Soon, Sister Isabella began taking away our recess time, giving us more homework, or making us stay after school for detention. I figured that as long as I was doing all my work and getting good grades, everything would be fine. This illusion was short lived.

One afternoon after lunch, Sister Isabella called all five of us to the front of the class. She began to talk about our behavior. Se said that we were a bad example for the other students, that we did not respect the rules of the class, and that our behavior was sinful. She said that we had no discipline to resist the temptation of sin and that for our sake she would help us develop this discipline. The longer she spoke, the more nervous I became. Something very bad was about to happen and that there was no way to escape the unknown punishment that was looming. I glanced over to her desk and saw a wooden paddle. My whole body began to tremble and I struggled to hold back tears. I got into my fair share of mischief at home and my dad spanked me for it. Never before had I been punished physically by anyone else and certainly not with a wooden paddle! The paddle was about eight inches long, five inches wide and one inch thick. I saw that it had holes and I imagined this would make it hurt more. The paddle was old and looked well-used. I wondered how many other children had suffered this pain. The five of us began to exchange glances and although we did not speak a word, we shared our thoughts without difficulty. We were all afraid and we did not want to be punished in this way. We were not bad as the teacher said and we did not deserve something as cruel as this. In those silent looks we made a pact not to ask for mercy, not to make gestures of pain, and above all, not to give Sister Isabella the satisfaction of seeing us cry.

One by one we had our turn. First she hit Jerry and then Felipe. Although they did not cry, their eyes were full of emotion. I thought that they must have felt pain, shame, and regret but their eyes showed none of this. It was something else I was seeing, but I could not identify what. Then it was my turn. When I felt the paddle smash my bottom it hurt a lot. The pain changed to rage and hatred. At that moment I understood that this was what I had seen in the eyes of my companions. Then it was Troy and David’s turn. When she thrashed them I felt more anger and hatred. Looking at Jerry and Felipe I knew they felt the same. Sister Isabella sent us to sit down and we did not utter a single word the rest of the day. I spent that afternoon thinking about the paddle and the pain that the nun caused me. It was no longer a physical pain, it was now a hurt that penetrated my soul. I looked at Sister Isabella and she did not look pretty to me anymore. Her appearance had changed and I saw her as an ugly and mean woman who hated children and who enjoyed hurting them. To me, she was the sinner. I decided that I would not bend for her and that she would not defeat me. If she had to paddle me every day for my behavior, so be it.

Sister Isabella paddled me many more times that year and each time my rebellion and the anger I felt for her grew. After that first paddling, I never felt like she cared for me or tried to help me. I gave her a wide berth as often as I could and wished for the year to end quickly. I never got paddled again after second grade. Although I got punished lots of times for talking too much and other minor mischief, I liked all the teachers I had from 3rd to 8th grade. Some teachers were kinder than others, some were more strict, but I felt that each of them cared about me and was genuinely trying to help me and my classmates. The negative feelings for Sister Isabella never faded, even now some 40+ years I still harbor some resentment.

Connections to my Professional Learning

I originally wrote this story in Spanish more than 20 years ago for a Spanish Writing Project I joined to improve my Spanish writing skills. I don’t recall what my intentions were for writing the story, but I’m sure it had nothing to do with connecting my personal experience to my professional work as a teacher.

Times have changed and now I routinely connect dots between my experiences and the experiences of others to all manner of topics related to learning, and student learning in particular. One theme I have been pursuing for some time is relationships. The importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher has been articulated beautifully by educators including George Couros, Sir Ken Robinson, Jimmy Casas, Jay Billy (The Innovator’s Mindset, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, Culturize, Lead With Culture respectively).

When I think about Sister Isabella and my experience in second grade, it is so obvious that our relationship was damaged. Looking back I have no doubt that Sister Isabella had good intentions. I seriously doubt that she intended to be cruel towards me. I was disruptive and caused problems for her in the class. But I didn’t see it that way as a seven year old, partly because I was a seven year old and partly because of how I felt. What might have happened had Sister Isabella opted for a different method to address my misbehavior? What if her response to the misbehavior had been informed by a Restorative Practices approach? This kind of approach is based in teaching rather than punishing and gives the student a chance to learn from mistakes and restore damaged relationships with others.

What if…

These thoughts made me think of Sister Isabella in a new light. I can’t know what her why was nor can I know what her practices were informed by. I thought about my own journey in the classroom teaching grades 1 through 6. What method did I use to address classroom behavior? What was it informed by? The truth is, it was mostly a traditional approach and it was informed in large part by my own experience as a student. I had not read books about different approaches nor had I made connections with other educators that could have been enlightening.

I recently read Better Than Carrot or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management by Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. The book unearthed memories about my classroom practices and reminded me about Sister Isabella and my second grade story. It was the catalyst for writing this post.

The following passage really resonated with me:

“…traditional discipline efforts focus on determining guilt and punishing the offender… the offender receives an undesirable consequence that typically involves shame, isolation, and exclusion.” p. 107

It perfectly describes what my 7 year old self experienced. When I think about what I “learned” from the experience, it sure wasn’t positive. I didn’t acknowledge my behavior, consider any harm I caused, or make plans to make amends. My reflection caused me to think about Rita Pierson’s Every Kid Needs a Champion TED Talk. This sketch note created by Sylvia Duckworth beautifully illustrates key points from the TED Talk. Thinking back to my experience with Sister Isabella I am struck by the thought that the experience was a missed opportunity.

Thinking about my current context as principal in an elementary school, I see many opportunities to continue building relationships with students and staff and to reframe how I respond to behavior with principles based in a Restorative Practice approach.

I will wrap up this post with one more passage from the book. After you read it, consider the implications for your educational setting. What does your current system teach kids unintentionally? To say it differently, are there behaviors we see that are perhaps an outcome of the system we perpetuate?

“Given the modeling with which they’re presented, it’s no surprise that many children learn to solve problems using rewards and consequences – through bullying for instance… when we misuse our power, we map a path for students to follow that is the opposite of what we intend.” p. 12

Why Is John Wearing a Dress?


Before we get started…

This particular post is not really about teaching, education, or leadership. I have been in a nostalgic mood the past few months and I came across this short story I wrote many years ago. I wanted to share it because it reveals a little but about my dad and my sister Clara.

You may know a little bit about my dad from Thankful for All The Things, a collaborative blog post from November 2018. He was most definitely very strict and regimented, surely a result of his time in the army. Our family friends would refer to my siblings and I as “los soldaditos de Eduardo” (Edward’s little soldiers) because we carried out his expectations to a T.  I have so many memories that highlight how strict and unwavering about decisions my dad could be and those that know me well have heard the stories countless times. They are hilarious now, though at the time my blood would boil from the anger or injustice I felt. But that’s not the whole story of my dad. He was extremely generous to others, he modeled daily the values of determination and hard work, and from time to time, he was quite the jokester. In fact, the root of this story stems from a prank he played.  I’ll get to that shortly.

Thinking about these various dimensions about my dad caused me to think about ideas I learned about in The End of Average by Todd Rose. Rose describes two opposing ideas that  psychologists attribute human behavior to, traits and situations. The first view holds that our personality traits determine our behavior; the second states that the environment is the driving factor for behavior. Rose posits the context principle of individuality, which states that “behavior is not determined by traits or situations, but emerges out of the unique interaction of the two.” As applied to my dad, we could say that at home and with regard to rules, my dad was rigid and unbending. At a party, you would not see those qualities, instead you’d see my dad yucking it up and very possibly wearing a wig or a lamp shade over his head. Just as is the case for all individuals, my dad’s behavior resulted from the interaction of traits and situations.

Ok, so let me set this story up and explain the photo. It was 1970 and we were living in Los Angeles. Since it was pre-internet, communication with family in Colombia was almost exclusively carried out via letters and photos (long distance phone calls were rare due to the cost). My family in Colombia knew that I was born a couple years earlier, but my dad wanted them to believe that there was a new child in the Martinez family and that this one was a girl. Yup, I was at the center of this prank, so I had the honor of wearing the yellow dress complete with gloves, handbag, necklace, earrings, and bow. And yes, I crushed it, just look at that expression on my face!

This story is told from my sister Clara’s point of view. It is a monolog that my sister is having with herself. I pretended that she was the one who dressed me up and this retelling has nothing to do with my dad. Clara has a nickname for me (Juanita Banana). I don’t know the origin of the nickname. Since the dress I’m wearing is yellow and bananas are yellow, it’s plausible that this story could have happened the way I tell it. Clara ismy oldest sister and we share a special bond. She has always called me her baby due to her caring for me extensively my first two years on the planet while my mom recovered from some serious health issues. She has always been my champion and defender. If you know me, you might guess that I got into a fair amount of trouble as a kid. She always stepped in and saved the day, or my hide. There were many times that my two big brothers wanted to pummel me for something I did. Clara would get between us and like a force field, they would shrink back. That was due to my dad’s influence. Luis and Jairo knew that if they did anything to my sisters, they would have to answer to him, and NOBODY wanted that.

Thanks for sticking with me on this post, I hope you enjoy the story.


Juanita Banana

Juanito, you’re such a cute baby. Eres tan linda como una muñeca, you’re as cute as a doll.  

Hey I know, today you really will be a doll.  My very own dress up doll that walks and talks.  

Having a baby brother when mamá isn’t home can be lots of fun!  Hmm…what can I do? I can dress you up! Should you be un vaquero, a cowboy?  Darn, we don’t have a cowboy hat or boots for you.  Maybe un payaso, a clown – we can use Luis’s costume from last Halloween. It’s here in this closet somewhere. Ah, I found it!  Ohno, it’s too big, it won’t fit you.

Hmm… Luis and Jairo are my size, none of their clothes will fit you.  Maria’s clothes will fit you. Too bad you are not a girl, I could have dressed you up all sorts of ways…  That’s it! Who says you have to be Juanito?  You can be Juanita – at least until mamá  gets home.

Let’s see, Maria has lots of clothes. What do you like mi hijo, my child?  That is a pretty dress, but I don’t think that pink is your color. What about this yellow one? Let’s put it on you and see. It’s perfect. Mi bebé precioso, my precious baby!  

Now we’ll put on white gloves, white earrings, and a white necklace. Oh mi hijo, que elegancia, such elegance!  Look at yourself in the mirror. You look beautiful. You really do look like a little girl in that yellow dress Juanito. You look more like a Juanita.   

Juanito… Juanita… yellow banana… Juanita Banana, that’s who you are now!!  

Failure Resumé and Stickiness

Episode #10: Failure Resumé and Stickiness

In this episode, we discuss the concepts of failure resumé stickiness. Some of the questions we explore are:  What can we learn from our failures? Why are some ideas stickier than others?

Resources Mentioned in E10

Dear Johns Segment

In this segment, we answer questions from our listeners. Feel free to DM us on our Twitter account, @BetweentheJohns

Please rate and review us on iTunes, that helps others find out about our podcast. 

Connect with us on Twitter @staumont and @jmartinez727 and check out our website

We are elementary school principals in Rowland Unified School District in Southern California. We have launched this podcast as part of our inquiry to learn, share and apply effective leadership practice.

Join our Personal Learning Network as we learn, grow, and connect with others. 


Energy Theme Music by

Check out this episode!