CPHS English teacher inspires students with personal achievements

Katie Johnson

Teenagers have an extraordinary ability to avoid commitment. They go to all lengths to avoid investing themselves in anything—jobs, relationships and especially school. Many students leave high school without ever really learning, without ever really thinking and striving to truly understand. They feel that memorizing facts and spitting out numbers is enough because that is the minimum that is required of them, and teenagers are all about exerting the least amount of effort possible. Michelle Iskra, an English IV teacher at CPHS and a professor of English at Austin Community College, strives to teach her students that they can do so much more than just repeat facts, that they can accomplish anything if they simply find in themselves the desire to surpass the minimum.

Iskra’s passion for helping her students recognize their potential is deeply rooted in her experiences with one of her own high school teachers, Virginia Alphin. Alphin helped Iskra uncover a love of literature and a passion for learning, and pushed her to recognize and pursue her own potential. 

“Mrs. Alphin made sure that, though I didn’t have very much money, I always had a book order form,” Iskra said. “She would suggest these different books, all of them classic novels: Treasure Island and Wuthering Heights—all these different things that I needed to experience. She really encouraged me to read and to start accumulating books and start to build a library, so that when I was bored I would go to a book instead of going someplace else.”

In her junior year of high school, Iskra’s parents forced her to give up her place as captain of the drill team, seeing no value in dancing.It was then that Alphin encouraged Iskra to get involved in persuasive speaking and debate.

“She would invite me to her house, and she found me a partner and really got my feet back on the ground about what I wanted to do and where I was going and my worth as a person,” Iskra said. “I just owe her so much.”

Alphin’s guidance gave Iskra the strength to go against her parents’ wishes that she get a job as soon as she graduated high school, encouraging her to seek a college education. Her parents offered no support or money, and she was thankful to get into Paris Junior College on a full ride theatre scholarship. Unfortunately, her parents soon intervened and forced her to completely rethink her future.

“My parents basically made me give up my theatre scholarship after the first year,” Iskra said. “They…just said, ‘We’re going to disown you if you don’t change your major.’ So I changed it to…computer science and I figured out that I could do accounting and work for myself so that I wouldn’t be dependent on anyone anymore.”

Iskra completed her accounting degree at the University of North Texas, but when she got a job as an accountant, she realized that she might have to rethink her career plans once more.

“It was such a near death experience for me…I was supposed to enjoy business and enjoy the challenge and have fun interacting with people and I really didn’t,” Iskra said. “I just didn’t listen to myself. And that’s one of the reasons I teach the way I do…because I don’t think there is a better service that I can give a student than to do two things: help them understand that they have inherent value regardless of what anybody says, and secondly, help them find their voice, hear their voice.”

After she quit her accounting job, Iskra enrolled in Texas State University and earned her master’s in English with a minor in secondary education. Upon receiving her degree, she decided to complete her student teaching at Cedar Park Middle School.

“I was there for two years, but I realized that I really wanted to teach high school,” Iskra said. “I wanted to do the same thing that my beloved Ms. Alphin had done for me for other kids. She was just so about the possibility that everyone has—that anyone has—it doesn’t matter what their circumstances are, and I loved that.”

Now, Iskra is not only teaching eight English classes at Cedar Park High School and Austin Community College, but raising two sons as well. Isaac, 14, is a freshman at Vista Ridge High School and Paul, 10, is a fifth grader at Cox Elementary.

“[Isaac] is beautiful inside and outside,” Iskra said. “He’s really gentle, is a great artist, and is really funny…And we have lots of inside jokes and I absolutely love that. And [Paul] is just a little angel…His teachers always say they want to clone him.”

Iskra admits that she is careful to avoid pushing her sons to read and write (although she is often tempted), making sure to respect the delicate balance between being an English teacher and being a mother.

“I try not to be the English teacher to anybody, honestly, because I think that is the bane of teachers,” Iskra said. “I had so much trouble as a student. I didn’t ever think I was smart, and I don’t like to make people feel uncomfortable or like they don’t understand.”

The difficult experiences that Iskra faced during her years as a student have greatly shaped her identity and approach as a teacher today, especially in her ability to relate to and understand her students.

Her struggles with ADD, for instance, have clearly contributed to her ability to communicate with her students, as many teenagers wrestle with similar learning difficulties. Also, being an auditory learner, needing to hear information out loud in order to process and understand it, Iskra understands the myriad of ways that students learn and tries to touch each different learning style.

Additionally, Iskra connects with her students on a personal level by encouraging passions outside of English. She always alerts students to events around Austin, supporting their growth not only in literature and writing, but in art, movies, community service, etc. For example, Iskra founded Coffee House at CPHS, which has given students from around the school an opportunity to share and perform art of all types. 

Also, this past October she invited several students to accompany her to the Austin Film Festival, and in November encouraged students to help clean up the Pond Springs Cemetery.

She is also an artist, painting in her free time, taking private lessons, and providing opportunities for her students to showcase their own artistic abilities such as allowing them to paint the ceiling tiles in her classroom. Iskra’s ability to raise two sons, manage eight classes, and still explore her many interests inspires students to do more, to want more, and to be more.

Iskra plans on keeping up her busy schedule in the future as well, eventually completing her PhD at the University of Texas, but her first priority is spending time with her sons.

“I just need to raise my children,” Iskra said. “I can’t miss that.”

She also hopes to publish some of her original poetry and complete the novel that she is writing, aiming to finish by next summer. As for her future with CPHS, she definitely plans on sticking around for a while.

“I see a lot of time still here at Cedar Park,” Iskra said. “I’m not finished with what I started here. I never get up in the morning and say I don’t want to go to work…I always want to do this. So, no, I’m not finished here yet. I have a lot more to do, a lot more to learn. I’m just not ready to go.”