Are you interested in having an impact on systems of inequity after graduation? We had the chance to talk to two Tufts’ alumni who, upon graduation, joined Teach For America (TFA) as Corps Members. These Jumbos talked about why they joined Teach For America, how Tufts prepared them to have an impact in the classroom, and how their time in the classroom informed how they wanted to make systems of inequity to make a difference for children and families in low income communities.
Nick Richard joined Teach For America as a 2015 Teach For America Corps Member where he taught bilingual education at an elementary school in San Antonio, Texas, after graduating from Tufts with a degree in Psychology. After his two year commitment, he went to graduate school in Canada, where he earned his MBA with a concentration in management as well as a master’s degree in international relations.
Emile Ansari joined Teach For America after graduating from Tufts in 2019 with a degree in biomedical engineering. He is currently finishing his two year commitment teaching high school biology in Connecticut. He intends to stay in the classroom for a few more years before going to medical school.
Why did you join Teach For America?
Nick: I didn’t think that I would be a teacher [after graduation]. What drew me to TFA was service. I just wanted to do something good. I was an idealistic senior Psychology major who just wanted to do good. I specifically wanted to go somewhere I could use my Spanish, so I ranked locations where I could teach bilingual education.
Emile: I have always been pre-med, and I majored in biochemical engineering. As a younger student at Tufts, I didn’t want to take any gap years and instead go straight through to medical school. As I got more growth and professional experience, I realized that I didn’t have enough personal involvement in the medical field to know if this is what I really wanted to do. Through working at Brigham and Women’s hospital, I had the experience to work directly with patients and I loved it and it was my first work exposure that was related to my passion about health disparities. Through understanding TFA’s mission as getting proximity to low income communities applying that to other industries around equity, I decided that I wanted this opportunity before medical school particularly when I reflected on the racism that I experienced as a student of color in the classroom, I wanted to be able to advocate for my students.
How did you become passionate about education equity?
Emile: My upbringing and background of having different experiences through going to a prep school and public high school for two years. I volunteered at a triathlon program in low income communities called Race4Chase Kids Triathlon, founded in honor of one of the Sandy Hook victims. I also had a teacher, Susan, who stayed with me until my mom picked me up one night at school because she was running really late from work; she probably didn’t pick me up until after 6 pm. Susan told my mom that this could not happen again but that she could support me by becoming my babysitter for free since my family needed the support. This experience showed me that teachers can just read slides off during the class time or instead teachers can be someone that you build a relationship with and help support you and your family.
What about your Tufts experience prepared you for Teach For America?
Nick: Looking back on it, Tufts pushed me in this direction because it is a similar idealistic space with a focus on creating civic leaders. We need real systemic change with shared values. Tufts is really about critical thinking. The standard factory model of education does not work, and it particularly does not work for marginalized black and brown students. So Tufts prepared me to bring these values into my classroom and to support my students in their development.
What has been the impact of COVID in your classroom?
Emile: Many of my students lack access to healthcare resources and have shared with me their struggles around staying healthy and safe during the pandemic. Many of their family members have been afflicted by coronavirus and have even passed away due to COVID, and they have constantly expressed their fears to me. Some students live with their grandparents and these students especially fear for their family members because their caretakers are incredibly vulnerable, which in turn of course affects their lives. In these moments, I am happy to be able to listen to them and support them emotionally, but there is always more that can be done. I have a teacher Instagram that I use to connect with my students who are virtual and this is a way for them to message me about school related issues, personal questions, and much more. In times like these I am honored to be an educator and support my students, but am ultimately reminded of my passion for healthcare and pursuing medicine and finding ways to improve healthcare equity.
What was the highlight of your Teach For America experience?
Nick: TFA is such a growth experience for the teacher in addition to the students. I fell in love with my kids. Obviously there were days when they drove me nuts. I got really close to one family, and I became the godfather to one of their children. I really became a part of their family.
Emile: My corps experience has really changed who I am. I have created strong relationships with my students and being able to be a support system for them has been the highlight of my experience.
Did you feel prepared from summer training to be in the classroom?
Nick: I had lesson planned. I had worked in a classroom. But I needed to give myself grace because no one is going to be a great teacher at first. However, every week, I would focus on one way to improve, so then by the end of the first year and my second year, it made a huge difference.
Emile: I am a big hands on person. Summer training was really cool because it gave me hands-on experience of working with kids. However, shifting from 8 kids to 120 kids total was a big difference. Day 1 in my classroom, I had a student that wouldn’t sit in her assigned seat and I did not feel how to address that. You have to be prepared for those situations. Overall, I am a trial and error person, so I like going into the classroom and trying things and seeing how they go.
How did your Teach For America experience shape your career trajectory?
Nick: I finished TFA in 2017 and I got my master’s degree in Business School and International Relations in Canada. Grad school came about because if the school administration is not aligned then you are going to feel like you are pushing up the rock up the hill constantly. Teach For America really bought me into the idea about how we create great leaders so I wanted to specialize in management. We need excellent teachers, but we need great leaders.
What advice would you give to other Jumbos interested in exploring TFA?
Nick: First of all, talk to a lot of people about their experiences with TFA. It is a great organization but probably not for everyone. So getting informed on the realities of teaching and being a Corps Member is really important. Secondly, getting involved with public schools through student organizations, like my experience with Peer Health Exchange, is really helpful. Finally, really reflect on why you want to join TFA. Having clear reasons on why you are joining is critical, since it is not for everyone.
Emile: You have to unlearn some things that you have learned before. For example, you have to consider the backgrounds of your students and families to understand what the resources are and what the constraints are so that you can utilize your skills to help meet their needs. You really need to listen first to the community to be able to provide them with what they need, not what you think that they need. It is important to treat people the way that they want to be treated, not necessarily the way that you want to be treated to be responsive to what they need.
Thank you to Nick and Emile for sharing your experiences! As Nick and Emile mention, Teach For America is a leadership development organization where you teach in the classroom for two years in a low income community where you receive coaching, professional development, and have an incredible opportunity to impact the lives of students. Our mission is to make sure that every child has the opportunities they deserve to reach their full potential since we know that resources and opportunities are not distributed equitably. After the two year commitment, our alumni continue their leadership both inside and outside of the classroom to create the systemic change that we need across sectors to reach their full potential.
To learn more about joining Teach For America, please visit our website.