Except Laura Stokes never needed a password. Doors opened for her repeatedly, because she was open to opportunities commensurate with her interests. She’s never been willing to stick with what didn’t feel right-in a word, brave.
Laura is a teacher of teachers, but not in the usual sense. She is neither a university professor nor that dreaded administrator who sits in a classroom with a notepad. She and her colleagues at Inverness Research, evaluate how various projects meant to improve teaching are working. For example, the U.S. Department of Education recently funded a project to help teachers in rural areas improve how they teach writing. Laura might observe in a classroom and interview the teacher about how the project is or is not helpful. The intent is to support the project so it can better support the teacher in supporting herself.
Laura has worked with Mark St. John and Barbara Heenan at Inverness Research for fifteen years in West Marin where the company is based. Shortly after finishing her Ph.D. at Stanford, Laura was looking for work appropriate to her interests but didn’t want to accept offers of a university professorship. Inverness Research was and has remained a perfect fit. That was one opened door.
Another perfect fit for Laura is her partnership with Amy Schliftman. They love hanging out around the pond Amy built. With their dog, River, the three of them take the sun, watching chipmunks and hummingbirds come for the water. They also count quail. Laura calls this kind of activity “going to church”: seeking and sinking into the sun, getting grounded in the dirt of the earth and watching trees. The family she and Amy have made is another door that opened.
Laura was raised in Lake County in Kelseyville. She says she’s lucky to be part of a big extended family where everyone seems to have chosen engineering, farming or teaching. And everyone stayed in Northern California except one brother who got only as far as Southern Oregon. Every summer the whole clan, about forty of them, decamps to Tahoe for a week’s reunion. This has been going on for more than twenty-five years. In the process, everyone learns to cook by feeding all forty people three times a day. They decided long ago that even the youngest would help and learn and take over cooking chores as needed. Laura says now they’re all “food people.”
In college, Laura thought she would be a high school teacher. She was unhappy when she discovered teaching teenagers was not for her. But soon someone suggested she might try ESL, working with international students. Another door opened and the work became a perfect fit for those early professional years. Laura remembers the fun she had picking up the wives of migrant farm workers, driving them to class and sharing laughs along the way. She had students from many countries speaking different first languages.
When she was around forty, another door swung open, allowing her into at Stanford. Laura says going to graduate school at that age opened an internal door. She worked with faculty in a collegial way, recruiting them to help her help herself. This should sound familiar, as that is precisely her job at Inverness Research. By evaluating how a given program is or is not helping teachers in the trenches, she is able to hold open the doors for them to learn how they can use better teaching strategies, thereby wedging crucial doors open for our kids, as well.