Blair Mishleau portrait

(Photo Credit:  Renee Barron

Next week, I begin year three in the classroom. This was a choice I had been planning on since before I joined the ’12 corps. I knew I would teach at least three years. It was one of the only things I was very sure of, for some unknown reason.

Katie Castellano Minaya

This week, New York City welcomes its 2014 corps to my beloved city, a place where I call home and am raising my two daughters. Ten years ago, I was in the incoming corps members’ shoes, and didn’t yet know that my life would be forever changed by my students and fellow teachers in the South Bronx—and by one student in particular, Oscar.

On Saturday, I attended Oscar’s high school graduation alongside his family. I was reminded that my commitment to my students and my community was in no way a two-year gig. I am a teacher for life, and celebrating Oscar’s tremendous accomplishment reminded me that the impact I can have on my students—and their impact on me—goes beyond a single school year.

Dear Oscar,

Do you remember that first day of school in September 2004? I do. I remember meeting my 28 new second- and third-graders from the Hunts Point area of the South Bronx. You met me, a brand-new Teach For America teacher, Miss Castellano. You probably saw right through me: excited and scared to death, but bent on providing a bilingual education for my students, one that never happened for my parents and grandparents who immigrated from Italy and Colombia.

(Photo: flickr)

I started a countdown.

One month, thirteen days, fourteen hours, 56 minutes, and 43 seconds until the last bell rings on the last day of school. Don’t judge me just yet. I started this countdown for a number of reasons:

To keep tabs on how long I have before my cash flow dries up (July and August are not fun when you are on that 10-month pay schedule!)

To find a summer internship or a permanent job (in case I decide to make year two my last in the classroom).

To assuage my frustration when I feel like my students and I are not on the same page, and, of course, to cherish their last months as high school juniors.

To be conscious of how much time I have to spend with my folks in the 2012 Miami-Dade corps before we go our separate ways.

Even this close to the end of the school year, I am still wavering about what to do next fall.

At Teach For America and the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE), we’ve seen firsthand the tremendous impact that great teachers have on their students’ academic and personal achievements. There are few things more powerful than an excellent educator, and we are thrilled to celebrate those who continue to devote their talent and time to opening doors of opportunity for students.

The mission of Teach For America is to ensure all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. With over 10,000 Teach For America alumni working toward this mission everyday as classroom teachers, we are honored to recognize 8 as this year’s Excellence in Teaching awardees.

The awardees come from different backgrounds, take different approaches to their classroom, and model our core values of Transformational Change, Leadership, Team, Diversity, and Respect and Humility. They teach across a wide range of grades, content areas, ability levels, and schools – since the award’s inception, we’ve also seen a balance of recipients across charter schools and traditional district schools serving low-income children and families. While each has made a profound impact on students in their own classrooms and beyond, no two are the same and they are all reflective of the diversity of thought among our alumni teachers.

These teachers are just a small sample of educators proving what is possible when we provide students with the opportunities, supports, and guidance to succeed. NAATE provides top teachers with an intense program that balances instructional mastery and leadership. We are proud to welcome this year’s awardees into the upcoming cohort.

You’ll be hearing a lot more from these educators as they embark upon a year-long ambassadorship, representing their students, schools, and communities in professional learning opportunities provided as NAATE program Teacher Fellows. They’ll also be sharing these experiences right here on Pass the Chalk during the 2014-15 school year.

Without further ado, let’s get to know them.

Eric Mitsch

Two months ago, I was offered the opportunity to participate in one of the most inspiring professional development experiences of my career: Teach For America’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) Retreat in Atlanta, GA. This three-day event gathered corps members, TFA staff, and ECE alumni from across the country in a forum that encouraged dialogue, reflection, and personal goal setting.

When I joined the corps after college graduation in 2004, my parents were pretty confused about the whole “teaching thing.”  As my two-year “phase” turned into three then six, and more and more 13-year-olds plastered my Facebook page with graduation announcements, my parents began to make peace with (and take pride in) the fact that teaching middle school was my calling.

And then I had to go and shock them all again.

I accepted a position as a pre-K teacher. My parents, along with former colleagues, principals, and friends from Teach for America became vocal critics of how I was choosing to serve in education.  They responded with a resounding cry:

“But that’s not real teaching.”

Thank goodness I didn’t believe them.

My three years at Liberty County Pre-K Center were truly the most pivotal and developmental years in my professional life, and I share a few rebuttals to some common ECE myths in hopes that you will join me, along with our co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard and our Early Childhood Initiative, in speaking out for the power of our littlest learners:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me is cute but not true. The “b” word fell off the lips of my cousins and playmates often which fueled “Am not! Are too!” wars regularly. Bossy. I was a young girl with a vivid imagination who created games and always wanted to play classroom where I was of course the teacher. I loved to lead, paid attention to detail and vocalized my plans and ideas. While I was a pint size leader displaying traits that would be embraced in a young man, society would consider these same traits for the young female as bossy.

While facilitating a teenage girls’ group discussion a few weeks ago, we talked about the validity of this statement, “People think I should act a certain way because I am a girl.” As the girls shared their opinions of what people think a girl should be and especially how she should behave, memories of my childhood flooded into my mind. I even made the correlation of the girl who is considered bossy growing out of that term and into the woman who is aggressive, dominant, demanding or overly opinionated. Unfortunately, stereotypes don’t remain on the playground. They seep into offices, agencies and board rooms with more eloquent synonyms for the infamous term, “bossy.”

Marielle Emet

Marielle Emet (Baltimore '06)

You know that scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus when he walks into the auditorium and suddenly realizes it is all about him? I had that moment. This past November I was told by my principal we were having an assembly with a lot of bigwigs to celebrate recent test scores. I created an alternative schedule, and grumbled about how this was going to throw off my unit plan. And then, about 10 minutes into the assembly (where I was mainly focused on getting a few key scholars to track the speaker) it turned out this was all a ruse: this was an assembly to give me the Milken Educator Award.

There were powerful people, quotes from kids, TV cameras, and a big check. I was in shock, people kept asking me how I felt and I was honestly (for the first time in my life, I think) at a loss for words. I was so surprised (this is not an award you apply for, and I didn’t even know I was in the running) but also in shock that my school family had done so much just to honor me, a teacher. After the camera crews left and I got back into the classroom--that was when the impact of this award took an unexpected turn.

Brian Gilson

Recently, social media has come alive with criticisms levied against Teach For America, and, specifically, what many of our alumni do after their initial corps commitment. Sure, feedback and critique is valuable, but I’ve found that some of the criticisms about our alumni contain half-truths, incomplete stories and hearsay. In my role on Teach For America staff, I’m privileged to work with nearly 400 Teach For America alumni in Greater Nashville, and I am fortunate to know dozens of other alumni across the country personally.  

What do our alumni actually do? Who are they? Let me tell you ...

Every afternoon, I help coach middle school track at a local public school here in Nashville. I coach alongside a Teach For America corps member and two alumni who still work in schools – one of whom, William, has been teaching for almost 15 years. Last year, our boys team even made it to the city championship meet.

In the evenings, I typically meet with corps members and alumni who live in Nashville or are interested in moving here. Just last week I talked with one of our alums, Anna, who has been teaching fifth grade math for five years and plans to continue doing so long into the future. Tomorrow, I’m having dinner with Andy, an alum who is teaching now. Eventually, he is interested in becoming a principal, but knows that he needs to teach for several more years before doing so to build his experience and credibility. Later in March, I’ll be traveling out of state with a group of alumni educators to observe a number of high-performing schools, with the goal of bringing these schools’ best practices back to classrooms and schools in Greater Nashville. These are just a few of the more than 10,000 alumni teachers throughout the country who all put in the hard work – day after day, year after year – to expand opportunities for their students.

Students in @MrsHayesKinders skyping with their pen pals in Washington D.C. 

As a young administrator, I fell head first into the trap of viewing educational technology implementation as an arms race, where it was more important to keep up with the trends and have the newest gadgets than it was to use what we already had effectively. Students would sit at their desk, taking notes just like their parents had done, while the laptop carts and class sets of iPads, lay in the corner collecting dust until it was time for a project.  The students viewed technology as a gimmick that was used a few times a year instead of as a tool to support their learning, and the teachers saw technology more trouble than it was worth. 

These are the three most important lessons that I have learned about technology implementation at the campus level.


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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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