Young teacher with parent and student.

Lifelong Teacher-Student Connections Made in the Classroom

The unique connections between students and Teach For America corps members that endure to this day.
Monday, April 9, 2018

When Johanna Even (Los Angeles ’92) first met Delia Acosta and her family, Delia knew very little English. Despite being born in the U.S. she, like many of her peers, came from a household where English wasn’t the first language, and by the time she entered Johanna’s first-grade classroom, she was struggling with the language. At the time, Johanna was herself struggling as a first-year corps member, trying to support a classroom of predominantly Spanish-speaking students in Los Angeles. Delia’s mother—who’d been a teacher back in Mexico—saw what was happening and stepped in as a classroom volunteer to help both daughter and teacher.

Former student and her teacher holding a book.
Johanna Even (right) first met Delia (left) in the corps. Over 20 years later, her experience teaching Delia influences her work today.

Within a year, Delia and her mother had become a second family to Johanna, even inviting her to travel with them to Nayarit, Mexico. “More than 20 years later, at Delia’s wedding, all the family I had met in Mexico greeted me again with that same warmth—calling me ‘la maestra,’” Johanna says.

Recently, Delia traveled to Chicago to celebrate the release of Empowering English Learners for Classroom Success, a book co-authored by Johanna in which she references Delia as an example what's possible for English learners when given the right mindset and support. 

For Delia, today a deputy district director for the Welfare Fraud Prevention & Investigations Department in Los Angeles County, it’s been an honor to have Johanna’s support and see Johanna’s passion for helping other students like her grow. “It meant a lot to have the moral support of my first-grade teacher throughout my life,” says Delia. “I felt proud to know that she kept moving on up with her career goals.”

The ties created between corps members and their students go well beyond the classroom. Even after their formal teacher-student ties end, TFA alumni write and send letters of recommendations for former students, even years—sometimes decades—after teaching them. They’re impromptu financial aid advisors, accompany former students on college tours, and wait in the wings to help decode scholarship forms.

Much like Johanna’s experience shows, the relationships you forge as a corps member can define you and leave a mark that can last a lifetime. For Justine Volkman (Kansas City ’14), it’s a tattoo across her forearm that reads, "More Love," written in the handwriting of her former student, Hayden.

Justine met 4-year-old Hayden four years ago while teaching Pre-K with the corps in Kansas City, Missouri.

During that time, Justine heard Dr. Sharroky Hollie, an author and educator, lecture on culturally responsive teaching and the concept of “More Love,” which deals with the importance of teachers moving beyond what’s just expected to emotionally support their students. “It’s what we as teachers are moved to do because of the deep compassion we have for our students,” Justine says.

Soon, Justine began spending time with Hayden outside of school. Through the years, she’s gone out of her way to be a positive mentor and adult figure in his life, and has supported him and his family through highs and lows. “The relationship impacted me so profoundly that I asked Hayden to write out the words ‘More Love’ and had it tattooed,” Justine says. “It’s a reminder of my ‘why’—why I devote myself to this work, why I show up for my kids despite the daily challenges of teaching, and why I strive each day to lead with love and expect my students to act out of love as well.”

Today, Justine teaches kindergarten and children’s yoga, and whether it's a movie, trip to the park, or ice cream and pizza (his favorites) outing, she finds time for special activities with Hayden and feels the relationship has helped him. “When he first started kindergarten he struggled with his behavior, and we’d talk through strategies for combatting challenging feelings. I held Hayden accountable for the conduct he said he’d strive for, and he’s made unbelievable improvements and is thriving in second grade,” brags Justine. “I feel blessed to have been the first of so many teachers who are beyond lucky to have him.” 

Corps member with a tattoo.
“It’s a reminder of my ‘why’—why I devote myself to this work, why I show up for my kids despite the daily challenges, and why I strive to lead with love and expect my students to act out of love as well,” said Justine of her tattoo.

Many TFA alumni agree: The students they teach as corps members go on to continually shape their leadership perspective in and out of the classroom. Like teacher Ariana Wall (Las Vegas Valley ’13) says, “They are with us every day as we navigate our first years of teaching, which can be some of the most challenging years of our lives. The students that we connect with are the ones that we think about when staying up late planning the ‘perfect’ lesson.”

Ariana met Ayleen “Ally” Perry when Ally was in her junior year at Canyon Springs High School. Growing up in a low-income community in the Las Vegas Valley, Ally had never been taught by an educator like Ariana, who was young and involved in their lives beyond the classroom. Ariana taught geometry, coached the dance team, built a garden that provided free vegetables to the community, and even invited a chef to speak on nutrition.

For Ally, Ariana remains a close friend, mentor, and confidant to whom she can turn for advice about which sorority to join or how to overcome her first not-so-great grade at college. Ariana even inspired Ally to apply for TFA this year.

“It’s unbelievable to me that one of my former students is applying to be a TFA corps member herself,” says Ariana. “When she told me that she had decided to defer law school and apply for Teach For America, my heart swelled. She feels it is her calling to make an impact on the lives of students just like her.”

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