New graduates head into two-year teaching corps

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Alison Schmidt will teach history in Richmond as part of Teach for America. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

After graduation, five new UC Santa Cruz alumni will be heading right back into the classroom for six weeks of intensive teacher training to prepare for new jobs in some of the most high-need public schools in the country.

The students are joining about 6,800 new graduates and professionals who have committed to work two years in rural and urban schools as part of Teach For America. The organization is affiliated with AmeriCorps, the national service network. Participants receive ongoing mentorship and support and earn a full first-year teacher salary from the district they work for. They are also eligible to receive help with student loans and a federal grant.

“I’m just really excited to get a chance to take what I’ve learned and become part of this program of going in to difficult schools and trying to provide students with resources that they might not have otherwise,” said Alison Schmidt (Cowell ’17) who is putting her new political science and economics bachelor’s degrees to work in a Richmond high school history class. “I’m really passionate about civics education.”

Janet Vasquez, (Merrill ’17) an Oakland native who is the first in her family to attend college, is graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Politics/Latin American and Latino Studies and a minor in Education. She’s returning to her hometown to teach sixth grade math. She hopes to be there long-term. Oakland needs high quality teachers who go beyond just the work in the classroom, she said.

“I see it as a long-term commitment,” she said. “I have a strong connection already built there. I can relate to a lot of what the students are going through. I have the same cultural background.”

A chief characteristic of TFA recruits is a passion for social justice. “Every child deserves an excellent education—one that empowers and supports her to fulfill her potential and realize her greatest dreams,” according to TFA literature.

“That’s the teacher I want to be, the teacher that assumes that everybody has equal potential,” Schmidt says. “I want to bring out that potential in whatever way is best for the student and not assume things about the student.”

Teach For America’s network of 6,900 teachers grew out of a 1989 Princeton University senior thesis project by Wendy Kopp that proposed a national teacher corps. The organization fielded nearly 49,000 applications from more than 1,900 colleges and universities; about 14 percent of the applicants will be accepted to teach in the program. In the last 25 years, a total of 109 UCSC grads have taught in Teach For America classrooms.

“When our kids have leaders that look like them and come from the same communities that they come from, it’s really beneficial for them,” said Taylor Weeks, recruitment manager for UCSC and other western colleges. These teachers “are all very involved on campus in different ways. They’re all standout leaders and are really committed to expanding opportunities for our kids.”

Teachers are certified and credentialed. After the two-year TFA commitment, some teachers stay in education; others go on to work in other fields. The TFA netword includes about 53,000 alumni.

“It’s really a leadership development opportunity for UCSC grads to get involved on the front lines of change,” Weeks says. “We are recruiting a very diverse group of committed leaders who are interested in expanding opportunities for students who are most in need. The training itself, as a professional opportunity, is next to none. The leadership experience you gain, no matter what you do down the road, prepares you to be a leader.”

For Schmidt, who has conducted much of her TFA application process via Skype, the last few weeks of her senior year will include final job interviews in between her exams.

“I’m obviously terrified that I’m going to be getting in front of a classroom of 17-year-old teenagers who are the same age as my sister; she never listens to anything I tell her to do,” Schmidt says. “But there is so much support. I haven’t met any of them [the TFA team] yet, but already I feel like I’m part of this family of really interesting, amazing people.”