Isela Lieber was 17 years old when she left behind everything she knew. In 1988, she set out on her own from Guayaquil, a small city in Ecuador, for New York City — without a high school education or a word of English.
She traveled thousands of miles to New York, where she lived for two and a half years, working at a factory for $3 an hour while learning English. Then, the teen traveled for three days by bus to Los Angeles. Once in LA, she worked as a housekeeper, took night classes and earned her GED certificate in order to achieve her dream of becoming a teacher.
In 1998, Lieber transferred to CSUN from Los Angeles Valley College. Hard work and perseverance paid off for Isela Lieber ’00 (English), M.A. ’02 (Educational Administration), both as a student at California State University, Northridge and as an educator: in October of 2016, state officials recognized her as one of five California Teachers of the Year, after she’d been named one of six LA County Teachers of the Year and one of 22 LAUSD Teachers of the Year.
Lieber teaches English Language Development at James Monroe High School (just a few miles east of CSUN), where her students are primarily immigrants. She said that sharing similar experiences gives her empathy for her students, since she understands the obstacles they face.
Alejandra Quiñonez, the student who nominated Lieber for LAUSD Teacher of the Year, said she noticed “how much time and effort she puts into her job.”
“She always tries to inspire other students to do better. She always goes out of her way to see others succeed,”Quiñonez said.
During an interview with Lieber in her Monroe High classroom after school, she discussed her connection with her students. She turned to the 10 high schoolers hanging out in the classroom and asked, “I don’t know, do you guys think I connect with you?”
“Yes!” her students shouted.
“We kind of have the same story, and I try to share my story and listen to theirs,” Lieber said of her students. “We make a very cool environment where we can help each other — they help me to grow as a person, and I help them with their English language skills, and sometimes with words of advice and encouragement.”
Of the students lingering in her classroom after school, many female students had come to browse the dresses Lieber had brought in for them to wear to the school’s senior prom. Some dresses were donations from other teachers, and some were from Lieber’s own closet.
The ninth- and 10th-grade teacher also leads a school club called Succeed, which guides teens — particularly those who would be first-generation college students — through the college application process.
Carlos Martinez, a member of Succeed, never had Lieber as a teacher, but said she has had a strong impact on him.
“She stays after school to help us with applications, financial aid and everything else,” Martinez said. “Students really relate with her because of her background and how [well] she treats us.”
Despite her family’s circumstances during her childhood in Ecuador, she gained access to books and developed a strong interest in reading, Lieber said.
“My family was very poor, but I was given access to a lot of libraries because my family would do the laundry of [upper-class people],” she said. “And that’s how I got this love for reading.”
By 9 years old, Lieber was reading advanced classics.
“I was reading The Odyssey and Don Quixote,” she said. “So when I came to [the United States], even though I’d only gone up to seventh grade, my Spanish vocabulary was very high because of all my reading.”
Lieber said that this background is why she encourages her students to read as much as they can, and that reading sparked her passion for teaching.
“I know that education is such a powerful engine of change,” Lieber said. “I want to give that to my students, and they respond very well most of the time. And even when they don’t, at least I know that I’m providing a venue where they have the information [to excel].”
Lieber has been teaching for 18 years, and her love for teaching has not dimmed, she said.
“My passion for teaching is getting stronger,” Lieber said. “I have pursued many different [directions]. I became a national board-certified teacher in English as a New Language. I’ve learned a lot of things — different pedagogies, different methodologies, different ways of helping students.”
Lieber said she hopes to pursue a doctorate in the near future.
“I would love to do my [doctorate] in educational research in a subject that’s relevant to what I like. I’m currently looking for fellowships, and maybe next year I’ll start looking for funding,” she said. “I would love to attend CSUN and get my Ed.D. from there.”
Lieber also recalled the impact CSUN professors had on her at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“I remember my [professors] — Dr. Sabrina Peck; Dr. Hayashi; Dr. Judy Fish; Dr. John Lucid; Dr. William Walsh, who did the methodology for teaching kids; Dr. Alfonso Nava, whom I liked because he was no nonsense; Dr. Yvonne Garcia, I loved her; and Dr. Patricia Watkins, who gave me a fail in one of my English classes and made me want to work harder,” Lieber said. “They are all very inspiring individuals. The professors [at CSUN] molded me into wanting to do what’s right.”