Challenging Minds, Engaging Hearts: Young Alumni in Education
By Roseanne Meier
...students need passionate people who are willing to work hard and fight for an equal education for all children. Laura Komarek '07
Theories about the role of the teacher, the passion that drives an individual to follow a path in education, and what motivates an educator to continue in the profession have ignited conversations for centuries. Harriet Martineau, a mid-1800s sociologist, once asked, "What office is there which involves more responsibility, which requires more qualifications, and which ought, therefore, to be more honorable than teaching?"
For those young Blake alumni who have gone into teaching, the answer seems to have unanimity. They state that the challenge of being an educator and the importance they place in a solid education for all is one of the biggest motivators as they push forward in the profession.
"I chose teaching because I wanted to do something that would make a difference. Quite frankly, I wanted to change lives," says Laura Komarek '07, who works with special education students in New Orleans through Teach For America, a program that recruits high-achieving, recent college graduates to work with children in low-income communities.
Fellow alumna Cynthia Leck '03 began her teaching career with Teach For America as well, teaching at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem for three years.
"I joined Teach for America because of the organization's mission," she says. "The education gap in this country is the civil rights issue of today. People greatly underestimate the impact that this gap has had on our country over the last 40 years. I wanted to be a part of a movement, and Teach For America gave me a way."
Today Leck teaches at the charter school Harlem Village Academy, where she cherishes the moments when she and her students challenge other people's expectations.
"Once while [my students and I] were taking the subway on a field trip," Leck recalls, "a man gave me $30 to buy all the students pizza. Why? Because they were sitting on the train reading and he didn't expect to see that. I'm not sure if it's just because of their age or if their skin color plays into it, but it feels great to make people rethink their perceptions."
That willingness to rethink perceptions is a theme among Blake's young alumni teachers, who often need to see their own students in a different light to more effectively encourage learning and growth.
Ben Gulla '07 is a teaching fellow in New York with Citizen Schools, an after-school program that extends the school day and learning time for middle school students. He recalls a student who frequently skipped classes during the school day but would attend the after-school program because she felt the curriculum directly applied to what she wanted to do for a living.
"The student really loved music and dance, but there was no real outlet for her [during the school day] to exercise and develop her passion for these arts," Gulla says. "So she was assigned to a modern dance apprenticeship. Although the student continued to struggle to attend school, she showed up every day during which her dance apprenticeship occurred."
Jessica Swenson '06 was working toward a degree in mechanical engineering when she realized that most K-12 students aren't familiar with engineering and might not consider it as a career option. "I want to bring engineering into the K-12 classroom in order to open students' creativity and challenge their thinking while making them aware that engineering is a career option."
Today Swenson is earning her master of science in the Mathematics, Science, Technology and Engineering Education program at Tufts University. As a graduate student at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, she is involved with Tufts' STOMP (Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program), which recently won a Changemakers award for democratizing science education in the United States. Swenson is one of two graduate students managing 50 Tufts engineering undergraduates who go into local classrooms on a weekly basis to teach engineering to elementary school students.
In her senior year of college, Nellie Connolly '04 moved to China to teach for a year at the China Foreign Affairs University. "I learned so much more than I could have ever imagined and had a really fun time doing it," she says.
"I had one Tibetan student," Connolly recalls. "His English was really not up to par, but he was so warm and kind. I assigned extra work for him to do. So he wrote these little stories for me about growing up on the grasslands, his dad being a doctor and the different types of medicines they would use, and how he rode horseback in the summers. And just looking at this student and thinking about how different our lives have been, it was just a real pleasure getting to know him because he really wanted to learn and improve his English and he was very enthusiastic."
Supporting young teachers through LearningWorks
For Natalie Owens-Pike '07 that genuine enthusiasm is the best part of being a teacher. She is one of several young Blake alumni who first experienced teaching through LearningWorks at Blake, an academic enrichment program with the dual mission of preparing motivated public school students for college and training talented high school and college students for careers in education.
"I was a sponge that summer filling up with lessons about my own classroom authority and getting hooked on the best part of teaching: the spark of the connection between kids and new material," Owens-Pike says.
Owens-Pike is currently in her first year of teaching at a high-risk Mississippi Delta school through Teach For America. "LearningWorks was the perfect preparation for the crazy foreign language teacher I am today," she says. "It convinced me that I loved being in the classroom and that teaching was a valuable and ambitious goal. It was invaluable preparation and a fount of motivation I dip into almost daily."