Teach for America inspires graduates to give back

Four recent NAU graduates accepted into the competitive Teach for America program are discovering the rewards of teaching in urban and rural public schools.

May 2010 graduates Che August, Leigh ConnerHannah Cunniff and Ray Stoeser each were selected by Teach for America from a record-breaking 46,000 applicants from across the United States. They have traveled different paths in the program but settled on the same passion—to increase the academic achievement of students in low-income communities.

Leigh Conner and students
Kids in Leigh Conner’s eighth grade class take time to clown around for the camera. Conner is second from left in the back row.

Teach for America is a national corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach in low-income urban and rural areas and become lifelong leaders in expanding educational opportunity. Started by a Princeton student’s senior thesis 20 years ago, the organization’s mission is that all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.After an intensive five-week training institute and passing state standardized teaching tests, the four are among 4,500 new corps members in more than 100 school districts in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

Conner, who received a bachelor of science in women’s and gender studies with a sociology minor, aspired to teach for the program “to be one of the teachers who gets to tell my students not only that they can, but that they will succeed.”

Simultaneously working toward teaching credentials and a master’s degree in special education, she did not join Teach for America with “naive notions” about closing the education gap in these communities. But she does hope to lead through teaching. (Today, 9-year-olds in low-income communities are three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.)

“Despite obstacles, my students are capable of achieving significant academic gains and earning standardized test scores that equal or rival those of schools in far more affluent areas,” Conner said.

She is excited to instill a love for learning in her students while teaching special education chemistry at Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, which ranked 1,284 out of 1,653 California public high schools.

Fellow NAU alumnus Ray Stoeser strives to make his mark in Detroit.

Ray Stoeser
Ray Stoeser teaches in his Crockett High School classroom in Detroit.

“You have to bring the tough love,” Stoeser said. “You have to communicate to these students that you care, that they can reach ambitious goals and you are there to help guide their learning and achievement. It’s not about controlling the students. It’s more about having the students own their own education and behavior. They like to be pushed.”Teaching in one of the lowest performing school districts in the nation, Stoeser uses his bachelor of arts in English and history minor to teach ninth grade English and 10th grade African American literature at Crockett High School.

NAU encouraged the graduates’ aspirations to be educators and confidence to charge through a rigorous application process for a program with a 12 percent acceptance rate.

“I was able to enter this incredible and seriously economically disadvantaged community with a baseline of knowledge about some of the struggles that my students are forced to reckon with on a daily basis,” Conner said. “Professors such as Sanjam AhluwaliaBarb White, and Mary Damskey challenged me to open my eyes.”

Originally a University of Arizona student, Stoeser transferred to NAU for a more personal, intimate setting, the same environment he hopes to foster in his classroom.

“NAU gave me a breath of fresh air and the attention I needed to succeed,” he said. “Professors like Jeff BerglundPaul Ferlazzo, and Paul Helford gave me a holistic educational experience at NAU and made me excited about teaching.”

Cunniff and August, both graduates of NAU’s College of Education, also are putting their degrees to the test in a two-year commitment to Teach for America. Cunniff is teaching first grade in Philadelphia, and August is teaching first grade in Phoenix.