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NTC Mentors Support Aspiring Educators of Color In Navigating Early Entry Points to Teaching Careers

Pathways mentors help unlock some of the mysteries of school-day teaching

Teresa Liu and Leandro Tejada weren’t planning on careers in the classroom. As a rising senior at Queens College, Teresa had switched majors multiple times, unsure of what she wanted to do. Leandro already had a degree and was working in graphic design. But a unique career exploration fellowship offered by New York City afterschool intermediary ExpandED Schools changed all that.

Open to college juniors and seniors (or recent grads) of color from any major interested in exploring the possibility of a career in education, the Pathways Fellowship provides a 10-month afterschool practicum experience as a gateway to teaching. To make classroom connections explicit, the program matches fellows with an expert practicing educator who is an alum of New Teacher Center mentoring. Fellows also participate in professional development and career networking as steps to becoming a “teacher of record.” Now in its sixth year, Pathways is helping to build a pipeline for aspiring educators of color in New York City.

“We want to see a diverse teaching staff in NYC schools that can really honor and uplift the rich cultural identities of our students and their communities” said Taejha Richardson, senior director of educator development at ExpandED. “Our young people need educators who understand their challenges… and the cultural contexts of their lives.”

Taejha says the alignment of ExpandED’s and New Teacher Center’s missions is a defining nexus for the program. The affirming support NTC mentors provide to fellows — encouraging them to embrace their identities as educators of color — allows them to authentically connect to young people in all their diversity. “There is something deeply empathetic that feels very intentional and explicit within the culture of NTC that we want to integrate into our approach for relationship-building with our fellows.”

Getting this kind of support from a practicing teacher just as fellows are being introduced to the profession gives them a jump start on developing learner-centered teaching practice. Mentors help fellows make sense of their experiences working with young people, guiding them toward the mindsets that are foundational to an enriching and impactful career.

Taejha said that program fellows consistently report “how amazing it is to have access to an educator … to talk through instructional strategies, to say ‘I’m having trouble connecting to this young person, what do I do?’” And fellows Teresa Liu and Leandro Tejada concur. Key takeaways from the mentoring support they received include understanding how critical relationships are to the learning environment, getting to know students and their stories, and building trust.

“There is something deeply empathetic that feels very intentional and explicit within the culture of NTC that we want to integrate into our approach for relationship-building with our fellows.”

Leandro said being able to observe his mentor provided important lessons he relies on in his current role as a middle school ELA teacher. “I was trying to feed them all information the same way… and it was awful…that frustration … it was because I didn’t have an understanding of who they were.” Leandro found he had to learn how to prioritize students’ interests to reframe lessons to make them appealing to drive engagement. “Whenever I am lesson planning now, I think about who I’m teaching to rather than bulldozing through the content.” His job, he learned, is to recognize his students’ assets, help “nourish” their passions, and develop their skills.

Teresa said her mentor modeled how to build relationships and provide a safe environment. “My mentor was empathetic, wise, caring, and very supportive. She didn’t try to generalize me.” And as she finishes her degree, having declared her major in education, Teresa said she is emulating this approach with a fifth grader she is currently mentoring as part of her ongoing volunteer work in youth development.

NTC Mentors Support Aspiring Educators of Color In Navigating Early Entry Points to Teaching Careers
NTC Mentors Support Aspiring Educators of Color In Navigating Early Entry Points to Teaching Careers

Pathways Fellowship mentor, and 17-year teaching veteran, Sory Rodriguez, confirmed that the emphasis on knowing students was a focal point of her support. “We focused on social-emotional learning and all those topics that are crucial for us as educators to be able to connect with students and support them,” said Sory. “I made [my mentees] understand they don’t have a classroom yet, but they will have situations where they need to know how to talk to students, they need to know how to understand their backgrounds. Then we move to the teaching part.”

NTC project lead, Sara Edelson, is effusive about the growth opportunities the partnership provides to extend how NTC thinks about mentoring as a tool for teacher recruitment and retention. “What’s so exciting about this partnership is we are getting to take what we know about teacher readiness from our 20+ years in mentoring to a much earlier, critical stage of teacher development… to help these fellows craft the habits of mind and the cultural competency to connect with students,” said Sara. “This is an opportunity to really provide guidance and true career preparation and support as they are just starting out on their journey.”

“I started to see the importance of students seeing themselves in their teachers, having that bond….””

— Pathways Fellow Leandro Tejada

Another aspect of the program she is excited about is the knowledge fellows bring to the apprenticeship from their practicum experience. “The afterschool space is so rich; [there is] so much family engagement,” said Sara. “We look forward to thinking more about bridging the gap with that K-12 classroom lens. Mentors can learn a lot from that, what learning can look like there.” As ExpandED President and CEO Saskia Traill put it at a recent graduation ceremony for fellows — “The beauty of situating the practicum experience in afterschool allows prospective teachers the opportunity to ‘see kids as their full selves’.” Leandro agreed, describing the afterschool experience as setting a high bar for true student engagement, a standard that all teachers should strive to meet.

The focus on embracing identity, knowing and engaging learners, and building trust and authentic relationships is a throughline of the Pathways program experience, NTC’s mission, and the foundation of our mentoring model. We are grateful for this opportunity to partner with ExpandED to learn how we can work together to better serve future generations of students and teachers in ways that center learners and advance equity.

What’s next for Teresa and Leandro?

Choosing from multiple job offers in youth development programming in summer 2022, Teresa served as literacy specialist with New York Edge, another afterschool provider in the city before finishing her studies at Queens College. After that, she is definite she will go into the classroom with a possible later foray into education nonprofit work.

Currently, Leandro is working toward dual certification in grades 1-6 and special education at Relay Graduate School of Education as part of the Teach for America program. In fall 2022, he’ll begin his third year of teaching. Eventually, he hopes to have the opportunity to teach art and after that, he’s interested in moving into higher education. He also reflected on the possibility of one day becoming a mentor himself.

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* All photography credited to ExpandED Schools