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2020 Diamond Corps Spotlight Series

Meet six 2020 "Diamond Corps" members who bring their diverse experiences, backgrounds, and aspirations to classrooms across Greater New Orleans in what will be an unprecedented school year for students across the region.

By Mary Bliss McCrossen

September 14, 2020

During this unprecedented time, Teach For America Greater New Orleans brought 58 teachers to our region who are committed to equity and excellence for all students. This marks our 30th corps of teachers, serving students across 47 open enrollment public schools. We have nicknamed our 2020 corps the “Diamond Corps” both in recognition of our 30th year of service to greater New Orleans and the strength and clarity that they will need to teach in our current unprecedented education environment.  

As the school year begins entirely online in Orleans parish, these teachers are uniquely positioned to have an immediate and significant impact on education in Greater New Orleans given their training in virtual, online, and distance education. Their backgrounds and experiences further contribute to their innovative approaches to teaching and leadership. Read more about the journeys of our 2020 Diamond Corps below. 

Picture of a smiling woman with dark curly hair
“I want to support children, aid them in realizing how powerful and brilliant they are, and most importantly constantly remind them that they matter.”

Yendeli Bello

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Yendeli Bello

  • Pronouns: She/Hers/Her 
  • B.A. Political Science, Monmouth University
  • Hometown: New York, New York 

Less than six months ago, Yendeli Bello was a student learning virtually. “Because I was in their shoes not too long ago,” she says, “I know I will be much more understanding when students are disengaged or aren't fully grasping the information.” Because of her own experiences, she has tried to make her teaching as interactive as possible by incorporating mental breaks, music, and dancing into lessons, as well as taking student feedback on how she can enhance their virtual learning experience. 

Reflecting on her own childhood in New York City, Yendeli realized that teachers provided essential support in her development. Her mother was a single parent with three children and had to work several jobs to make ends meet, which made it difficult to spend as much time as she wanted to with her children. “Most of the support I received during my childhood was through my educators,” explains Yendeli. “They filled the gaps that were present, and were the ones who continuously supported me through my educational process. This is what inspired me to teach.”  

That inspiration motivates Yendeli to forge deep connections with students. A first-generation Dominican-American, Yendeli says “I can't wait to build relationships with them and introduce them to a Latinx culture while they simultaneously introduce me to theirs.” She also plans to apply the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lessons she learned during Virtual Summer Teacher Training to her instruction. “I appreciate that we dedicated hours of our time to DEI every single day, as what we spoke about were the main reasons that I joined TFA. I could have chosen another alternative teaching program, but the focus on anti-racism and CRP [culturally relevant pedagogy] is why I am here.” 

Prior to TFA, Yendeli was an intern at LIFT, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to end intergenerational poverty, helping families who were impacted by the pandemic access resources and navigate the unemployment process. This experience and those of her childhood provide her with a deeper understanding of what some of her new students may be facing at home. “Every child deserves a community of people supporting and rooting for them,” says Yendeli. “I wanted to be part of that community. And thanks to TFA, I am.”  

Picture of smiling person with dark hair
“As a teacher, I deeply care about my students’ mental and emotional wellbeing, and I feel strong pride whenever I see them have an ‘aha!’ moment in my class.”

Maddy Mayer

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Maddy Mayer

  • Pronouns: They/Them/Theirs 
  • B.A. Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies, Dartmouth College  
  • Hometown: Sarasota, Florida

Maddy Mayer’s love for teaching began long before considering joining Teach For America. In high school, they taught American Sign Language, and in college, Spanish and English as a second language. “I learn so much from my students,” says Maddy. “Not only do they allow me to see the subject I teach from different perspectives,... they also teach me about different ways of life and ways of forming community.” Aspiring to have a career as a professor, they see Teach For America as a way to jump-start that journey. 

Building a strong community amongst students virtually is Maddy’s priority, because in their words, “school is so much more effective, wholesome, and nurturing when it is done in person.” Fortunately, their experiences teaching Spanish virtually during college and teaching first graders online during TFA’s Virtual Summer Teacher Training (VSTT) prepared them to tackle virtual instruction. Maddy also co-created and presented a session on LGBTQIA2S+ issues in the classroom during VSTT for their cohort. They found the presentation to be especially powerful because it allowed them to express their true self while also preparing other Teach For America teachers in making intentional space for their own queer students and colleagues.  

Maddy's most pressing priority at the moment is creating innovative ways to connect with their kids. “Building community virtually will be extremely important in the next few weeks as school begins,” they say. Maddy is also reviewing their social studies curriculum to assess how to be intentional and anti-racist in their approach. 

Outside of work, Maddy is focused on balancing work and home life to be their best self for students. As Maddy says, “Making friends and having a social life in a new city during a pandemic is difficult!” After lesson planning, hopefully they can get to know more Diamond Corps Members and build a network of support in New Orleans—while social distancing, of course. 

Picture of smiling Black woman with long hair
“Teaching is one of those professions where you may work hard and face backlash, and still smile through the obstacles because you know your students matter and deserve the best.”

Katerra Billy

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Katerra Billy

  • Pronouns: She/Her/Hers 
  • M.S. Global Studies, New York University 
  • Hometown: Queens, New York

Katerra Billy is no stranger to understanding the power of education. 

“Teaching is truly in my blood,” she shares. Most recently, Katerra was a service learning program coordinator engaging high school students in local community service and building schools in communities of need across the globe. Her commitment to service took her to countries such as Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Jamaica where Katerra repeatedly encountered challenges similar to those that our students face here in New Orleans.

“Time and time again in my travels and roles adjacent to education, I would be exposed to overwhelming inequities and lack of opportunities, over policing and lack of restorative justice, apparent low expectations and lack of representation,” says Katerra.” It takes a coalition of people, diverse in background but unified in mission, to affect systemic change. I felt that is what I could find at TFA.”  

Katerra found the support of her fellow TFA corps members at Virtual Summer Teacher Training (VSTT) essential to navigating the transition to a new city and adapting to virtual learning. As a special education teacher at KIPP East Academy, she is prioritizing learning how to use online platforms such as Nearpods that allow her to truly understand students' needs and how to best support them as diverse learners. When reflecting on the needs of diverse learners in a virtual classroom, Katerra says “having split screens and needing to multitask while engaging students, redirecting, recalling notes, and just balancing it all seems like a great juggling act!” She is also worried how her diverse learners will fare in the virtual setting and if the modifications will be sufficient for them to not fall behind.

Despite her concerns, Katerra is confident in her ability to virtually engage her students this year and is looking forward to getting to know them. “I had the opportunity to meet a few of them at our orientation and it helped to ease my nerves because they were just as excited to meet me!” she says. Katerra believes the urgency for equity and educational reform is even more pressing due to this pandemic. We agree and are grateful that leaders like her chose to work on behalf of our students in New Orleans during this unprecedented time. 

Picture of smiling man with short dark hair sitting in front of the Washington Monument
“Who am I if I do not commit to this work during one of the most important times? Students still have to be in school, and that means they need teachers that are dedicated to their growth and exploration.”

Gavin Gondalwala

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Gavin Gondalwala

  • Pronouns: He/Him/His 
  • B.A. International Affairs, George Washington University 
  • Hometown: Orange County, California

Gavin Gondalwala had an exceptional public education experience growing up. It wasn’t until he worked in DC Public Schools during his four years at George Washington University that he witnessed the opportunity gap firsthand. It was then that he understood the concept of a broken public education system and where he realized teaching was the one thing that he truly loved. He just needed a way to start his career. 

“I turned to TFA and was really drawn to the organization’s values and commitment to community-based service,” says Gavin. “I was still in the middle of the decision process when the pandemic hit and was so nervous that the entire corps was going to be cancelled—but thankfully, here I am!” A first-generation college student, Gavin’s family has been extremely supportive of his decision and even furthered his reflection as to why he wants a career in education. 

Engagement strategies for his students are top of mind as Gavin starts this semester with his students. After finishing his final college semester online and completing Virtual Summer Teacher Training, Gavin gained direct insight into the challenges of distance learning. “My experience is leaving me with a sense of determination as I work to ensure my classes are designed to be taught online, and not simply in-person lessons that I’ve adapted.”

With the support of his colleagues, Gavin is excited to tackle his first year of teaching in New Orleans. ”I’ve had a lot of autonomy in designing my course because it is a new hybrid of two previously separate courses.” He is nervous and excited to design the new curriculum, but feels incredibly supported at his school which has made a large investment into professional development and coaching. This support and Gavin’s own commitment to teaching has helped him maintain and hopeful outlook for the school year. 

“I decided to come to New Orleans in the middle of a pandemic because who am I if I do not commit to this work during one of the most important times?” Gavin says. “Students still have to be in school, and that means they need teachers who are dedicated to their growth and exploration.”

Picture of smiliing AANHPI woman with long brown hair
“I believe that being impactful to students requires not only dedication to teaching and loving students, but also dedication to educational equity and social justice in the larger community. ”

Heena Kuwayama

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Heena Kuwayama

  • Pronouns: She/Hers/Her 
  • B.S. Statistics, B.S. Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
  • Hometown: Buffalo Grove, Illinois

Heena Kuwayama was inspired to be an educator because of her childhood experiences with teachers who provided her with a support system through thick and thin and encouraged her learning every step of the way. “I chose TFA because I wanted to be as impactful to a new generation of students as my own teachers were to me,” she says. She believes that impactful educators commit to educational equity and social justice. “This is more important now than ever before,” she explains, “as we struggle through the pandemic and begin to understand the different ways in which COVID-19 has affected our students and the supports that they need in our classrooms this year.” 

Heena’s top priority for this school year is figuring out how to build authentic and trusting relationships with her students and families in a new and mostly virtual environment. The first time Heena engaged in virtual learning was as a college student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I think what strikes me most from my own experiences is just how difficult learning can be when everything happens through a screen,” she says. This experience informed her approach to virtual engagement which she knows is even more difficult for her elementary students. Heena is using her own experience to ensure that she dedicates time to seeing how games, movement, and other fun activities can be incorporated into her lessons to make them easier for her students to stay engaged. 

Despite the challenges and uncertainties, she is excited to get to know her students and families. “I’m learning how to accept and embrace uncertainty when necessary, and how to step into the classroom with confidence in spite of this uncertainty,” says Heena. She is dedicated to learning how to balance her lessons between fun engagement activities and necessary academic content, and how to use a critical eye when assessing her lesson plans so that she can adjust them to be most effective for her students. 

"I’m definitely nervous about starting off the school year because everything feels so new between being in a new city and starting a new job,” explains Heena, “but I’m looking forward to this new adventure!”

Picture of white woman with blond hair wearing a hat on a snowy day
“I was so inspired by all of the teachers who have been at my school for a long time and have such close ties with families. Most of these relationships were created both inside and outside of the school building and it really highlighted how deep the NOLA community rolls!”

Grace Thompson

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2020

Grace Thompson

  • Pronouns: She/Her/Hers 
  • B.A. Geography and Urban Planning, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill  
  • Hometown: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

There were many people, experiences, and personal aspirations that inspired Grace Thompson’s to teach. Her high school soccer coach, her college extracurriculars, and her mother’s work at an education non-profit founded by a Teach For America alumna all influenced her plan to join the 2020 teaching corps. There was also a conversation she had with her father before he died when he revealed that he wished he had been a history teacher. As Grace says, “I thought about that a lot throughout the application pipeline and in my decision to still come to New Orleans during COVID-19 to teach.”

Grace’s experiences serving in the ROTC while attending UNC Chapel Hill have also influenced her approach to teaching. She is currently enlisted in the U.S. Army and believes that there are strong similarities between leading a platoon and leading a classroom.

“In both scenarios, I am responsible for the success and the development my people—both as individuals and as a collective,” says Grace. ROTC also taught her the power of “check-ins” in kickstarting a relationship. “A casual check-in might lead to someone opening up to you down the road, as you’ve already demonstrated that you care,” she says.

Grace applies her past experience with virtual check-ins while studying abroad in Asia as a prime example that strong bonds can still be formed despite the lack of in-person interaction. The one-on-one Skype calls with her Army professor resulted in a strong bond and finding commonalities that would not have been possible in a larger in-person setting. Similar to her virtual experience in college, the classes at Grace’s school are intentionally smaller than usual, giving her the opportunity to implement best practices in terms of creating meaningful engagements with her students.

Grace looks forward to her ongoing commitment to Teach For America and to her students and families. She is inspired by her fellow educators and the close ties that they have formed with their families, both inside and outside of the school building. She knows that she will learn as much from her students and colleagues as they will from her, and looks forward to celebrating the diversity of perspectives and experiences that they will share. “We are all the cumulative of the experiences we have had,” explains Grace. “Considering that our journeys are so diverse, so are we.”