Reflections: Lisa C. Saka ’87

In the Reflections series, the School of Education asks alumni to look back on their distinguished and fascinating lives and careers.

Lisa Saka headshotBorn in Cleveland, OH, special education graduate Lisa Costanzo Saka ’87 has lived in Syracuse for a total of more than 20 years, wearing many different hats as an educator locally and around the world.

Also holding a doctorate, a master’s degree, and two certificates, Saka currently is a reading intervention teacher in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD). She and her family are active in the community, volunteering and supporting the CNY Rise Center, Blessings Box, Eastern Farmworkers Association, Syracuse Community Choir, InterFaith Works, Nottingham High School, and other community organizations.

“I love the regional market and that I can purchase much of what we eat directly from the producers,” Saka says. “I am a former runner, current walker, and I have committed my life to working with diverse communities.”

What is your fondest memory from your time at Syracuse University/School of Education?

What I remember most about the School of Education was the individual time I got from faculty. I was fortunate to begin the special education program in time to take a class from Dean Burton Blatt. He was an incredible force of nature, yet so gentle. He invited students to meet with him seminar-style in his office, to pose questions and discuss anything and everything in the field.

“I knew I was in Syracuse at a dynamic time. It was exciting, intimidating, and inspiring.”

I attended these informal conversations, usually one of about 10 to 12 around a conference table. Most attendees were master’s and doctoral students, avid Blatt devotees, and well-versed in his life work and the state of special education. I genuinely knew little about the field at the time and was somewhat overwhelmed. I showed up, at first to gain favor with Dr. Blatt, but as I explored his books and listened to the conversations around the table, I knew I was in Syracuse at a dynamic time. It was exciting, intimidating, and inspiring.

My advisor Allison Ford was amazing. Her door was always open. She affirmed the highly cognitive and pragmatic approach that I took to education. At the end of field work in the autism program at Levy Middle School, when I told her I couldn’t envision myself working in the arena of severe disabilities for 30 years, she reassured me. Of course not. She said the expected life of a great teacher in severe disabilities might be just five years. Our relationship was such that 10 years after I graduated from Syracuse, she wrote a strong recommendation for doctoral program applications.

Dean Douglas Biklen also was there for me over the years when I was looking for a job. I will never forget our conversation at the end of my first year of teaching in SCSD. I was considering applying to the Peace Corps and sought his advice. He told me of his own experiences as a volunteer and how much it had influenced his life. Looking straight at me, he smiled, leaned across his desk and whispered emphatically, “Go!”

What is something from your career that you are most proud about?

I have lived, studied, and worked in education across the US and globe since my undergraduate days. I studied in Strasbourg and did an independent study on the special ed system in France. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked for the national distance university of Costa Rica. For three years, I lived in a small town and taught university classes to teachers who lived and worked in rural areas. I traveled the region visiting community schools. I also learned outstanding Spanish and how to salsa dance like a native.

I completed a Ph.D. in Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity from the University of Colorado-Boulder, living, working, and studying in Boulder and Texas. I lived for a year in Istanbul with my husband and daughter. During that time, I taught English language and culture to young women, recent university grads who aspired to teach in the US. Those who achieved that goal still thank me for preparing them so well for US culture and schools.

“Don’t be afraid to move, to try different things, and to explore new avenues in and out of teaching.”

I have taught pre-K to grade 6 general education, special education, literacy, bilingual education, and ESL/ENL in diverse cities across the US. I have coached elementary teachers and coordinated learning for K-5 schools. I have tutored English and Spanish and Reading in K-12 schools.

At the university level, I have taught undergraduates and master’s degree students, including courses on bilingual special education and literacy for linguistically diverse learners. I have supervised ESL and special education practica, led school district professional development, and researched literacy development in two languages. I have taught ESL at Fatih University in Turkey and at multicultural centers in the US, and I have supported teachers—for whom English is a second language—with certification exams.

Since 1987, this adventure has taken me from Syracuse to Costa Rica to Ohio back to Syracuse to Boulder, CO, to Austin, TX, to Denver to Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to Istanbul to Sunnyvale, CA, and back to Syracuse again.

I have had many different experiences, mostly in cities with incredible diversity, coupled with an incredible breadth of perspective of education from pre-K through university level. I don’t think there is any limit to what I can do in the field. As a family, my husband and I have committed to living in Syracuse through my daughter’s Nottingham High School graduation. After that—who knows!

What is the biggest change you have seen in education during your lifetime?

I am saddened by the reduction of elementary language arts curricula to largely a discreet set of skills. We seemed to be making great strides in personalizing learning but at the same time expect every teacher and every student to be on the same page, with the same skill and same answer every day.

It seems that pre-service teachers are not taught about learning and development, as if children today don’t grow developmentally? There seems to be a misguided belief that simply sending a child to school and beginning abstract, academic instruction at a younger age will trump developmental milestones.

The good news is that in New York—unlike other parts of the country—we are more concerned about student identity. We are working to create environments in which everyone feels that they belong, that their heritage is honored, that their gender ID and sexual orientation are respected—that their totality has value. We now have students in our schools from across the globe. This enriches the experiences of everyone.

What gives you hope?

Witnessing students’ progress and watching them become aware of their learning and growth. Having conversations and hearing student questions about phenomena and life outside the classroom. Having conversations with parents about different sides of students and listening and sharing in the hopes and dreams they have for them. Seeing students in the community and among their family and being able to envision them as future adult community members.

What advice do you have for an SOE student just starting on their career path?

Like Dean Biklen said to me: Go! Know that it is okay to spend 30 years in the same district, same school, same grade, or subject. But it’s also okay to see the world.

So take your first job in the spirit of a beginning, as a commitment to one great year of service. Then see where life leads. Be reflective. Be the fly on the wall in your own learning space. Watch and listen to yourself and your students. Be humble and gentle but also structured and prepared.

Don’t be afraid to move, to try different things, and to explore new avenues in and out of teaching. Get outside your comfort zone and let yourself do things you never imagined. Hold high expectations of yourself and your students—outstanding teaching and learning demands high-level thinking!