The inspired path after Cornell: Changing lives
I have fond memories of great teachers from nursery school through graduate school. Years before sitting in Bailey Hall with hundreds of other students in Psych 101 my interest in psychology had been sparked by a high school teacher who hated the textbook, using instead the plots of operas – casting students in various roles – to make lessons more vivid.
The chance to work with great teachers and share their stories prompted me to join Teach For America, where I now work as a regional communications director.
Although a Cornell education can open many doors, the paths that students travel to get here in the first place are an important part of that journey. None of us would have made it here without great teachers along the way.
Cornell seniors are answering this call with a growing interest in Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates to teach for two years in underserved urban and rural schools. Their interest is not due solely to the economy. A larger call to public service is just one of the things that define a Cornell education. Cornell graduates are not just well educated but well prepared to excel in challenging situations and to create their own opportunities.
Nearly 11 percent of Cornell's Class of 2010 applied to Teach For America. This fall, 60 Cornell graduates are among the 4,500 new incoming teachers, ranking Cornell third among the top 20 large colleges and universities that have sent graduating seniors into its teaching corps.
Working in a challenging environment, a Teach For America corps member must be resourceful and resilient. Students in low-income communities are often multiple grade levels behind their wealthier peers, and yet their capacity to learn and their desire to succeed is just as great.
Teachers continue to inspire me as they change lives. Take as two great examples in Teach For America Larry Stevens '10 and Kwame Griffith '02.
Sitting in Stevens' 12th-grade English summer school class at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia you would never know he hadn't always planned to be a teacher. Each day he wrote a phrase on the blackboard to inspire his students (he refers to them as "scholars"). On one day, that phrase was "Scholars play the hand they're dealt."
On the last day before exams, he kicked the class off with a powerful reading of a poem he wrote about growing up as a young African-American man in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J. He later earned a scholarship to a private school and from there came to Cornell. This fall Stevens is teaching in Washington, D.C., and he plans to remain in education as a school leader.
While Stevens is just beginning his journey as a teacher, Griffith, now executive director of Teach For America in Atlanta, continues to draw on his past experiences teaching fourth- and fifth-grade students in Houston.
Griffith, who is also African-American, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and learned the importance of education early as his single mother sacrificed to send him to a public magnet school. While he can't remember having any black male teachers until he came to Cornell, it was at Cornell that he was drawn to the idea of becoming a teacher.
Cornell set both of these educators on different paths with the same result: It allowed them to dream big and inspire their students to do the same.
Rhonda Stewart '95, Arts and Sciences, is a regional communications director at Teach For America.