It’s a cliché to describe a happy workplace as one big family.
But a bit like boasting, it’s not a cliche if it’s true.
And it seems true in the special education department at Rancho Cotate High School, where Nancy and Cassie Ellis’ mother-daughter-teacher combination provides the heartbeat of this working family.
“We’re best friends. We’ve always been best friends,” said mom Nancy Ellis. “Working with her feels right, it feels natural. We really get along.”
To be clear, kids call Cassie “Mrs. E”, and Nancy is “Mrs. Ellis.”
They may be best friends and great co-workers, but they’re admittedly different. Where Cassie Ellis likes systems, spreadsheets and organization, Mama Nancy is prone to chaos, change and the unexpected.
But both are deeply empathetic and love what they do.
“Education professionals need to have a lot of love in their hearts,” said Rancho Cotate Assistant Principal Henri Sarlatte. “They are both great people.”
“I am so stressed”
The whole family story has a twist: It wasn’t the daughter who followed in the mother’s professional footsteps. It was the other way around.
Cassie was a new teacher who loved her work and found her groove. After graduating from New York University, she had worked in special education programs in schools in the Bronx and Oakland.
Her mother, a former social worker stuck in an unsatisfactory management job with a lot of stressful travel, called her daughter one day in tears.
It wasn’t the first time.
“I called her crying,” Nancy said. “I would say oh my god I’m so stressed out.”
Cassie had an idea.
“She said, ‘I think you should be a special education teacher like me,'” Nancy said. “We’re going to Sonoma State together.”
But by “together” Cassie meant helping her mother with things that weren’t Nancy’s forte: boring intake forms, endless paperwork. Nancy would do the academic work.
“She started her qualification program in my sophomore year,” Cassie said.
Nancy was 50. Cassie was 23.
“Rancho hired me as an intern and I never left,” Nancy said.
That was in 2016.
And then it was Nancy’s job to show the way. She praised Rancho and the special education community there. Cassie worked at a school in Oakland.
Come to me, she said. And Cassie did.
“I was so happy and relieved. It was like the best day of my life,” Nancy said. “I felt like my family was finally complete.”
“She can see what she wants from her children”
When Nancy talks about her job, she laughs a lot. kids are funny She is funny. the world is funny
She toys with the weird things kids do or the teenage tumult that can sometimes turn the best of lesson plans upside down.
Of course, Nancy was never one for lesson plans. It’s more of a Cassie thing.
“She’s a lot more organized, which is where I tend to encourage it,” Nancy said. “She’s more linear than me so by the end of the lesson she can see what she wants from her kids. There’s a name for it, but of course I can’t remember what it is.”
But while Nancy is envious of Cassie’s organization and her ability to streamline tasks that Nancy finds boring, Cassie watches in awe at her mother’s ability to embrace chaos and connect deeply with people.
“It’s a really tough job, but there’s so much creativity and flexibility,” Cassie said. “That’s why I think it suits my mother so perfectly. She sees an opportunity in that.”
Also, she likes the excitement.
“My mother loves chaos. She loves a job where what you do changes every day,” she said. “I found the perfect job for her.”
At Rancho, Cassie works primarily with high school students. Nancy mostly hangs out with ninth graders.
But they overlap. It’s not your fault. They like it that way.
“Sometimes my stepdad forgets to pack her lunch and I share with her,” Cassie said.
And sometimes, when Cassie is having a bad day, Nancy will come over and offer a mom hug instead of a co-worker hug.
She got one of these on Monday.
“That was only 20 minutes ago,” Cassie said. “She came in and said, ‘What can I get you? A coffee?'”
That connection goes beyond mother-daughter and applies to the entire department, Cassie said.
“Our department is incredibly tight,” she said. “We have full support for each other.”
“She connects with our toughest students”
While Nancy found her passion in teaching at age 50, Cassie found her calling after attending NYU’s course with a disability studies component.
She began to see the world and how it was structured differently. And that included schools and classrooms.
“Schools and education are designed for specific types of learners,” she said.
Cassie is someone who has always loved school, but feeling safe and comfortable in a classroom is not every student’s experience. This bothered Cassie and made her teach.
For Nancy, teaching is about connection.
This is the teacher who, according to her daughter, keeps “granny panties” in her classroom.
Seeing a student wearing saggy pants, she jumps into action and tucks the prop underwear into her waistband.
“She says, ‘If I want to see your underwear, I’ll make you see mine,'” Cassie said. “They will laugh and pull up their pants.”
When Nancy wants kids to get away from their phones, she calls it “Night Night Time” and lets them pocket their phones for a nap.
“I give them little tissues so their cell phones can go to sleep,” she said. “They take it from me because I’m a dumb old lady, but a young hip teacher can’t pull that off.”
Whatever Nancy does, it works, her daughter said.
“She’s a very popular character here,” she said. “She connects with our toughest students.”
“She’s an amazing person,” Cassie said. “And she’s a total jerk.”
On Tuesday, the mother and daughter had students ask them questions while I took notes: What was she like as a teenager? Do people always ask you about your mother?
The couple laughed and bravely answered.
Mrs. E and Mrs. Ellis easily express their gratitude – for finding their calling, for coming to Rancho, for being able to do what they love, and for doing it together.
“It’s wonderful,” Cassie said. “An experience I will never forget.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com. On Twitter @benefield.