Five Teachers Share the Personal Experiences That Motivate Them

By Brian Soika

August 3, 2021

Steven Spencer, MAT '18 is a high school teacher who poses for a photo in a checkered shirt on a college campus

Steven Spencer, MAT ’18 (Photo/Ross Brenneman)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have been forced to navigate numerous challenges. From managing remote learning to addressing the social-emotional needs of students, the ability to pivot became an essential skill. Meanwhile, the high-stress work has taken its toll.

Of course, while many find it rewarding, a teacher’s job has always been challenging. 

It’s perhaps not surprising then that some educators are motivated to pursue their career by deeply personal experiences. 

Drawing on profiles from USC Rossier Magazine and school news, these five teachers and Master of Arts in Teaching alumni share the potent reasons that drive them. 

Lizette Becerra, MAT ’18

Lizette Bacerra, MAT '18, a teacher in Los Angeles plays a drum during the 2019 UTLA teacher's strike

Lizette Becerra, MAT ’18 during the 2019 United Teachers of Los Angeles strike (photo/Margaret Molloy)


Subject areas: Ethnic studies, English

School district: Los Angeles Unified (Los Angeles, CA)

Pivotal personal experience: “I am the first in my family to earn a master’s degree. I was drawn to teaching in Sun Valley because, when I was 7, my eldest brother was killed here. I want to help make a place that has taken so much from me just a little better by serving its underrepresented youth.”

On her role as an educator: While overcoming the challenges of being a first-year teacher, Becerra would remind herself of what she told her students: “Making mistakes is part of the learning process.”

Read more about Lizette Becerra. 


Laura Chase, MAT ’15

Laura Chase, MAT '15, a teacher, stands next to a large Arctic waterfall
Subject area: High school chemistry

Employer: DCI – District of Columbia International School (Washington, D.C.)

Pivotal personal experience: Joined an arctic expedition to Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard as part of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions

On her role as an educator: “On a tiny, remote volcanic island, I saw a roll of plastic packing tape washed up on the sand… It made me think about the importance of emphasizing environmental education in my science classes.”

Read more about Laura Chase.


Steven Spencer, MAT ’18

Steven Spencer, MAT '18 is a high school teacher who poses for a photo in a checkered shirt on a college campus

Photo/Ross Brenneman


Subject area: High school English 

School district: Fresno Unified (Fresno, CA). 

Pivotal personal experience: Before becoming a teacher, Spencer played college football. “Sports helped me find my true calling… I saw how many teammates of mine grew up without strong male role models. My dad showed me every day what a great mentor was, so I realized teaching would be a great opportunity for me to pay it forward.”

On his role as an educator: “I always try to teach to the young man or the young woman based off their strengths, and to help them find ownership of who they are through literature.”

Read more about Steven Spencer.


Anna Becker, MAT ’18

Anna Becker, MAT '18, a teacher, smiles in front of giraffes at her workplace: The Los Angeles Zoo

Photo/Peter Brown


Position: Curator of Community Conservation

Employer: Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Pivotal personal experience: As a self-described “shy and awkward teenager,” Becker spent weekends with her dad exploring—and volunteering for—her local zoo. 

On her role as an educator at the zoo: “We work here because we want to save the world… We want to save animals; we want to save species; we want to do something big.”

Read more about Anna Becker. 


Julia Denney, MAT ’18

Julia Denney, MAT '18, a teacher, during the 2019 UTLA teacher's strike

Julia Denney, MAT ’18, with her dog, Harbor.

Subject areas: Geography, U.S. history, AP U.S. history

School district: Los Angeles Unified (Los Angeles, CA)

Pivotal personal experience: “I was fortunate to go to college and be exposed to stories, language, and primary sources that helped me understand and talk about our current global context. However, I did not think that it is necessarily fair that many people have to pursue higher education to access these tools.”

On her role as an educator: Denney participated in the 2019 United Teachers of Los Angeles strike. “Participating in the strike meant utilizing my privilege to stand up for the future of public education… It has inspired me to continue to be the teacher-advocate that USC’s MAT program encourages all of its candidates to be.” 

Read more about Julia Denney.