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At the beginning of the school year at YES Prep West Public School in Houston, Texas, UT graduate Laura Nishida told one of her students that he was smart and she couldn’t wait to hear about his college choice.
Nishida said the student looked at her with wide eyes and said, "You're the first person that has ever told me I am smart."
"You could immediately see him carry himself differently because he finally believed in himself," Nishida said. "If you tell a child they can succeed, they will believe it."
Nishida, of Knoxville, graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in May 2010 with a degree in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. She joined Teach For America in August.
Nishida has a long history of volunteering.
In high school, she was a member of Teen Board of Knoxville, a nonprofit community service organization. At UT, Nishida was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha, a sorority that prides itself on its philanthropy—breast cancer education and awareness.
"I dedicated my time to volunteering whenever I could to help this cause, especially since I was my sorority's service chair my sophomore year," Nishida said.
She also served on Panhellenic Council for two and a half years, which gave her the chance to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, and several events around Knoxville.
Nishida said a quote from TFA’s vision statement inspired her to join the service organization: "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."
"So many children are being robbed of a quality education and as a result of this, being robbed of their future," Nishida said. "It angered me every time I thought about the children of our country not being given their entitled right to an excellent education. I knew that this was a chance to make a difference in the lives of the underserved kids in America, and I was not going to pass it up."
Nishida started teaching sixth-grade science at YES Prep West Public School in August 2010. She said her students are very diverse and many come from low socioeconomic families.
"It is amazing to see how close and family-oriented everyone is at my school, including the students' families, because we always make sure every student has what he or she needs," Nishida said. "The mentality of 'Whatever It Takes,' my school's motto, is truly seen every day at my school."
Originally, Nishida planned on going to pharmacy school after her two-year term with TFA, but she has fallen in love with her job, school, and students, so she thinks she'll be teaching for much longer.
"I have learned that children need someone to believe in them," Nishida said.
As his undergraduate career drew to an end, Jamie Lonie knew he wanted to give back in some way and figured those few years after college would be the best time to do so.
He decided to participate in Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits top college graduates from all academic majors to commit to teach for two years in one of the thirty-nine urban and rural regions across the country. The goal is to expand opportunities for children in low-income areas and decrease education inequity.
"It took me a while to figure out how I could make an impact, but I was eventually drawn to TFA's mission to end education inequality," Lonie said. "I wouldn't have successfully made it to college at UT if it hadn't been for my teachers in grade school."
Lonie, of Jackson, Tennessee, graduated from UT in May 2010 with a public relations degree. He served in the Student Government Association for four years and served as the organization's student services director during his senior year. He helped SGA organize several events to improve the campus and the community, and he also went on the 2008 alternative fall break trip to Roanoke, Virginia.
Lonie has worked at Petersen Elementary School in Houston, Texas, for a year now. He teaches pre-kindergarten through fifth grade science lab, where he works with children on basic science skills, applying each of those concepts to a hands-on experiment.
"I like being able to see their academic progress," Lonie said. "Especially with the younger students, I can see dramatic growth over one school year."
One of the things Lonie most enjoyed working on was an after–school program called CSTEM, an acronym for communication, science, technology, engineering, and math, which gave his brightest students an opportunity to learn new skills and build confidence in their creations.
Lonie said he's feeling a steep learning curve since he didn't major in education, but he's getting the hang of classroom work.
"I have learned that I can push myself harder than I realized," Lonie said. "Still, I know it will be years before I become an amazing teacher that I think my students deserve. I am trying to continue to grow, and I have so much more respect for educators."
Corps members are paid directly by the school districts for which they work and generally receive the same salaries and benefits as other entry-level teachers.
Avery Mannino's students came into kindergarten without the prerequisite skills they needed: letter recognition, knowing how to write their name, ability to count, etc. At the end of the year, they were reading and writing on grade level and ready for first grade.
"I was so amazed by how much my students learned this year," Mannino said. "On the first day of school, I would never have thought that was possible but I didn't stop believing in them. They are truly amazing little people."
Mannino, of Memphis, graduated from UT Knoxville in May 2010 with a degree in enterprise management and marketing. She joined Teach for America (TFA) in June.
TFA is the national corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. TFA's network in the 2011-12 school year will include 9,300 corps members teaching in forty-three regions across the country and nearly 24,000 alumni working in education and many other sectors.
"I decided to join TFA in order to be a part of a national movement to close the achievement gap between wealthier students and those living in poverty," Mannino said.
Mannino worked at a school in Colorado Springs, Colorado for one year and will transfer to a charter school in Denver to teach for two more years.
It hasn’t been easy, but it has been rewarding.
"The beginning of the year was stressful, learning how to teach and also work to fill in the gaps that my students already had," Mannino said. "They grew an amazing amount throughout the year. I learned that kids just need someone to push them and believe in them, and then they really can do anything."
Mannino has learned that the achievement gap is very real and affects students all across the country, as she has witnessed in her own classroom.
"I know that race and socioeconomic status are not the underlying factors for smart students," Mannino said. "All students can learn and achieve if given a teacher who is willing to work hard and believe in them."
Mannino plans on teaching for two more years in Denver and expects that she’ll continue teaching for a few years. In time, she’d like to pursue a career in nonprofit leadership.