Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Why I Became a Teacher

August 14, 2020

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What inspires the country's top educators to teach? Click through the gallery to see what led our 2019-20 Milken Educators to careers in education.

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Susan Moreno (TX '19)

"I became a teacher because I felt the need to share my experience of being a biracial, bicultural and bilingual person. Before I became a teacher, I was planning to work in the medical field. A personal experience lit a spark that ignited a flame, my ever-burning and hidden desire to teach. I realized that I wanted to help kids learn how to learn, and to build relationships of trust and foster their sense of curiosity."

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Miki Cacace (HI '19)

"I always wanted to be a graphic designer and loved to create visually appealing pieces of art on the computer. After college, I worked at an advertising agency for a year. It wasn’t what I had thought it would be like. Making a career change from advertising to teaching was a tough decision, especially after experiencing a life-changing event. I lost a loved one to suicide. Coming close to death really put things into perspective.

"After self-reflection and through personal growth, I realized that my purpose in life was to make a difference and impact the lives of others. That’s why I became a teacher. I wanted to be a positive influence on today’s youth and help them build the necessary skills to maneuver through life successfully, both in and out of the classroom."

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Laura Cole (KY '19)

"I always loved math in school and became a teacher to my brother and friends at a young age, so it just fit. While I was in college, I saw how underrepresented women were in math and computer science classes. That was my inspiration to teach high school math and encourage smart women to stay in STEM."

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Kathryn Daniels (MS '19)

"Having grown up in a family of educators—I am a fifth-generation teacher—many people assumed I would become one too. However, my stubbornness got in the way a bit. I decided that I wanted to be different, to blaze my own trail. Out of high school, I initially pursued a career in medicine, but on-the-job shadowing quickly showed me that my heart simply was not in it.

"I began to reconsider education during my sophomore year in college as I visited my mother’s classroom and looked with fresh eyes at everything from her pedagogy to her relationships with her students. My decision to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in history with a minor in English literature was sealed during a semester spent studying abroad in London; I decided then that I would immediately pursue a Master’s of Education upon graduation. My untraditional route to teaching has enabled me to have both the practical and theoretical experience I needed to be the educator I am today."

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Carly Bowden (KS '19)

"A series of teachers showed me how beautiful the profession was through their classrooms. Brad Nicks (KS ’09), my high school math teacher, really breathed life into the possibility of becoming an educator. He allowed me to teach math lessons when he was gone for sporting events. This allowed me to get a taste of whether I might like teaching or not. Mr. Nicks also let me continue this during my senior year. I was also able to go down to the middle school level to see whether I liked that age group and content.

"What’s beautiful about education is that every single teacher I’ve had throughout my career has provided me with a 'nugget' of information. I have a piece of every one of my past teachers incorporated into my classroom, craft and strategies. We truly don’t know the effect that we as educators have on our students, but reflecting on our own academic careers provides us with a unique perspective on how influential every educator is in our lives."

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Shalisha Thomas (AR '19)

"I have wanted to be a teacher since I was young. My mother, Mrs. Shirley Thomas, sparked this interest. Although she is not a certified teacher, she was the first teacher I ever worked with. She spent time teaching me how to do things that would prepare me for school. She was always willing to help me with my homework. My mom was gentle, patient and supportive as I worked through problems (and she still is). I remember times like this when I am working with my students.

"I had great teachers along the way, so I am not surprised that I followed in their footsteps. Teaching allows me to be in a position to help my students, offer advice and encourage them to work to their full potential. When I was in school, art was a relief for me. It allowed me to express myself and practice creating things that were a challenge for me. I remember feeling at ease whenever I entered the art room. I strive daily to create that type of environment for my students."

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Jennifer Paolantonio (RI '19)

"From a young age, I always loved being with children. I was drawn to the idea that a career in teaching would provide me the opportunity to be surrounded by children and have a chance to make a positive impact on their lives. I knew teaching was the only career choice for me—in fact, it was more of a calling than a choice. Having a role in helping children grow and become the best version of themselves has always been an ambition of mine. There is no other job more rewarding than the work I do each day.

"An integral factor to wanting to teach was to make connections with students. For me, teaching has always been about making connections with students, whether at the elementary or high school level. You are never too young or too old to feel as though you mean something to someone. I want to be that person for my students, the person that makes sure they know their worth. I want to be a teacher who students know cares for them and is invested in their success, not just in my classroom, but in life. To me, teaching has always been a tremendous platform to engage in meaningful conversations with students that go beyond curriculum and textbooks."

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Adam Parvanta (ME '19)

"Prior to graduating from high school, I had to choose between going to college for television production or becoming an educator. At the time, I was mentoring at an elementary school. That experience ultimately tilted me towards pursuing a career in education.

"Working with high school students is really interesting. They’re still at an age where they get genuinely excited about things while being mature enough to work alongside as young professionals. They’re able to collaborate and make the experience fun. Maintaining a sense of humor is very important."

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Rachel O'Kelley (NC '19)

"I became an educator because of the example two of my high school teachers set for me, Mrs. Sherlton Broadnax and Mrs. Sonya Rinehart. Learning was so fun and engaging in their classrooms, yet rigorous! I also truly remember the feeling of being loved and accepted for who I was and where I was academically in their class. I want to do that for students."

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Kristen Musgrove (FL '19)

"For as long as I can remember I have loved children. I began college pursuing a nursing degree. I had taken all the prerequisites and just needed to apply to nursing school. I was playing college softball at the time at Florida Community College of Jacksonville and was offered a scholarship to play out of state at Lambuth University in Tennessee. Unfortunately, that university didn't have a nursing program.

"I transferred to Lambuth and changed my major to education. It ended up being the best decision! I had no doubt that I wanted to work with children and teaching seemed to be the best fit. I absolutely loved school as a kid, so why not make a career out of it? As I progressed through college and took more classes toward my teaching degree, I knew teaching was exactly what I was meant to do."

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Nate Kirsch (TN '19)

"I always enjoyed math and enjoyed explaining things I understood well to other people. But in college I had a hard time envisioning my adult life starting with a 6 a.m. wake up, so I pursued a math major instead of a math education major. I tried a few different careers after graduation, but I missed doing math. My favorite part of my life was hanging out with the high school youth group kids at my church. I considered changing careers and becoming a youth pastor, but I realized that as a teacher I would get way more time around kids and could use my passion for mathematics as well. It seemed like a perfect fit."

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Leslie Sullivan (SC '19)

"I knew that I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in middle school because I was lucky enough to have so many great teachers myself. I originally thought I would teach elementary school because I really liked working with younger students. But then I had a couple of really incredible teachers in high school that made me change my mind. It seemed like such fun to be able to challenge high school students while having a large impact on their life, both socially and emotionally. My original plan was to be a math teacher, but in college I realized I was much more passionate about the humanities and decided to become a history teacher."

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Rebecca Missler (AK '19)

"I was pursuing a master’s degree in geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) when I realized I loved being a teaching assistant (TA) and teaching the geology labs. I was also a TA for the amazing Jeff Drake, who was teaching a geology class for elementary education majors. He had so much fun doing experiments and science labs with them, his love for teaching science was contagious!"

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Omar Duron (AZ '19)

"After receiving a degree in Business Administration in 2001, I applied to work as a special education instructional aide at Cibola High School in Yuma. This was my first experience in a school setting, and it was instantly rewarding working with students with varying physical and educational needs. I was able to make an impact on the students I assisted on a daily basis. Students were accomplishing their goals, and I was gratified to be able to serve them.

"I tell my students I lived their lives when I was their age. I understand our students’ struggles because I was raised in this community and shared the same struggles they have. I am an English language learner, and I understand how students feel when they have a hard time understanding the content or are frustrated with their language development. I form part of this community’s culture and I am able to quickly relate to them and use my life’s stories as examples. I truly hope to make a difference in their lives."

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Melissa Fike (MO '19)

"I have always known I would be a teacher. When I was young I would 'play school' by teaching long division to my stuffed animals. As a middle school student I struggled in math. In high school I had a teacher who changed my experiences with math and I learned to really love the subject. I wanted the opportunity to share with students how exciting math can be."

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Candice Harrington (CA '19)

"I was working as a tutor and instructional aide at Saddleback Community College, and so many times my students would say something like, 'That’s not the way my high school math teacher taught me to do it.' I began to realize what an incredible impact high school teachers have not only on students’ abilities, but on their confidence with math. I decided to go back to school to earn my credential and the rest, I suppose, is history!"

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Julie Rowell (OR '19)

"I was working as a secretary in a newcomer center in Portland Public Schools, where families new to the United States came to register students and have their language skills assessed. I wanted to continue to work with those students and families in a more comprehensive way. Also, I had some pretty amazing teachers who inspired me to go into education."

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M.E. Hersey (MA '19)

"Both my parents are educators. I spent my childhood sitting at dinner listening to stories from their classrooms. When I started subbing on my breaks from college, mainly because it was just a job I could find, I didn’t expect it to become my career. On the contrary, I spent my whole life sure I would never teach. In my early years this was because it seemed like endless homework. In adolescence and young adulthood it was because having the same career as my parents didn’t sound romantic or adventurous. But I learned by example the value in working from a place of passion and integrity. When I started subbing in the schools and I felt that spark, things just clicked for me. It was a long time coming."

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Nick Jacques (NV '19)

"As an individual who was raised in an abusive and non-nurturing household, school was my safe place. At school I had my friends, my teachers, my hobbies and a positive environment that kept me out of the house. My best class was band because it was something I enjoyed doing, I did it well, and it gave me a reason be away from home. It was a place where I could be myself, and I flourished.

"I met a teacher who would become my mentor. Chuck Wackerman, who is still teaching at the age of 89, used to share stories of his experiences with famous musicians. He showed us that those famous musicians began their journeys in school bands just like ours. That spark began my journey into music education.

"In high school, I auditioned and performed with a college band. Dr. Betancourt was our teacher, and his enthusiasm, sense of humor and encouraging personality gave me an even clearer focus for my future. My high school jazz band traveled to the Reno Jazz Festival, and I found the campus that I ended up calling home for seven years. As I worked through my college classes, my drive to become a teacher continued to grow, and I knew that I had found my true calling."

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Lyndsay Hartmann (NE '19)

"There is a long line of educators in my family, but I resisted the teaching bug at first. Out of high school I went to the local community college to learn how to code. I kind of got bored and there wasn’t enough interaction with people in what I was doing, so I took a promotion at my restaurant job and became a manager.

"Through managing the restaurant, I learned that what I really loved was interacting with my employees and putting them in positions to be successful. One of my favorite things to do was give kids their first job and teach them what it means to be a reliable member of a crew. After some changes in my work environment took those opportunities away, I craved that type of interaction again. It was then that I decided to leave the restaurant world and go back to school to become a teacher."

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Lacy Rivera (NM '19)

"I have always wanted to make a difference in society. I started teaching as a stepping stone into educational law and policy. I knew that great change could happen on a large scale with the right laws, policies and practices, and I also knew that in order to advocate for change, I needed to have the experience of teaching.

"Little did I know that I would fall in love with the classroom. I have learned as much from my students as they have from me, and I have grown as a school leader over the years. In fact, I view critically conscious and caring classrooms as the most powerful spaces for change. Educators can be agents of change that multiplies across communities and grows over the years."

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Dr. Johnnie Marshall (GA '19)

"As long as I can remember, I wanted to pursue education as a teacher and administrator. I used to play school with my sister and cousin at my grandparents’ home. Several factors played a role in my decision: hearing family stories of triumphs and challenges, working hard on the family farm, gaining critical thinking and leadership skills from school and faith-based teachings.

"While in school, I had the heart to help those around me and encourage them to do their best. I had many passionate teachers who saw potential in me and allowed me opportunities to lead and help them during pre-planning and post-planning.

"Although I was blessed to have phenomenal teachers throughout my K-12 experience, I did not have one academic African American male teacher. Nationally, African American male educators are the lowest percentage of educators in American schools. I wanted to be a beacon of light for young scholars, especially those who resembled me. Committing and dedicating my career path in education allows me to serve as a role model for all learners."

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Jennifer Williams (LA '19)

"Being a teacher is the only professional career I’ve ever had. I am grateful I had the opportunity to stay home with my children when they were young. I was their teacher first, and they were my inspiration to go back to school and become an educator.

"When my children were in elementary school I loved being involved with their teachers and classmates, so I volunteered whenever possible and became a substitute teacher. Then, when my eldest daughter received a dyslexia diagnosis in second grade, I saw the struggle firsthand. I knew I had to do more to make a difference for her and other children with learning disabilities.

"I attended classes and researched the subject in the pursuit of her having every opportunity to be successful. I was like a sponge when I re-enrolled in college at age 30 as an education major. There were so many things I wanted to learn. Becoming a teacher has been fulfilling for me, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else."

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Brian Allman (WV '19)

"I definitely didn’t take a direct path to being a teacher. Education is something that has always been important to me. I’m so thankful for having parents and grandparents who valued education and set me up for future success before I even started school. I knew that education was important and I also knew that it was something that could never be taken away from me.

"I’ve always known that I want to work with people and I’ve always had a passion for history. I actually went to college with the intention of entering the medical field. I took the required courses and did well in them. But I felt like something was missing. I knew that my heart wasn’t in it. At the time it was a difficult decision, but I changed my major to education. It ended up being the best decision I ever made. The rest is history."

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Brooke Lee (OK '19)

"I started attending college right out of high school and my major was education. I changed my mind after a few years, thinking I wanted to be a nurse. Once I got married and had children I knew I needed to be in education and follow my passion of teaching and helping children."

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Princess Francois (NY '19)

"Teaching found me. Starting in childhood, I tutored my peers and achieved great results. In college, I mentored minority pre-med students to help them gain admission into medical school. I thought that was my ultimate dream as well. I noticed that a lot of my peers who shared my background—first generation, colored, poor—were struggling through college, particularly in the Ivy Leagues and especially in core STEM classes. I realized that their struggles were rooted in the quality of their K-12 education.

"I joined Teach for America fresh out of college, wanting to make a difference, not realizing what that truly meant. I wanted my students to have the same quality education that I received. However, that quality education did not come from my zoned school. Rather, it came from my mom making numerous sacrifices to enroll me in Catholic schools.

"Things hit close to home when I was placed at the very zoned school in Prospect Heights that my mom refused to let me attend. I worked at that school for five years. Those years not only allowed me to invest in my own community, but they also fostered in me a strong desire to be a role model for my students."

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Nathan Yaussy (OH '19)

"I never expected to become a teacher. My plan through high school was to become a research ecologist, a job that I described as 'wandering through the woods alone with a thing that goes beep.' This plan took me to a master’s program at Kent State, where I studied Aquatic Entomology—swamp bugs. However, with no one else in the lab, and my only company being a five-gallon bucket of dead insects, I realized that I needed people to talk to."

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Katie McQuone (CA '19)

"Education was never my plan. In college I took a part-time job working with preschool children while I completed my degree. I fell in love with that age group. After college I considered preschool but decided on elementary. I went back to school to get my credential and as soon as I finished my multiple subject the Video Production Academy position at Sunnyside opened up. I was terrified to take on a high school position, but after a few conversations it just felt like the right place for me. I have been here ever since."

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Brian Cox (WY '19)

"When I first went to college it was simply to try my chance at playing football. I was a whopping 5’10” and 210 pounds and had successfully made it as a walk-on for the University of Wyoming football team. One day at practice I was trying to make a big hit to get the coaches to notice and I dropped my head too low. I fractured my neck and limited my ability to continue to play.

"At the time I was an electrical engineering major. Doing well in my courses was not an issue but I truly did not see myself engaging in that work for the rest of my life. I chose it because I knew engineers made money and I needed a college degree to change my stars.

"When I was hurt, I thought about dropping out and returning home to Colorado Springs to work at the gas station and McDonald’s where I had worked all through high school. Then I thought back to who, outside of my mother and immediate family, had influenced me to do more than I thought I could. They were my teachers and coaches—specifically Paul Colgate, Mrs. White and Senora Cowan. These three adults helped my single mother craft the person I would become and reinforced to me that continued effort could achieve things that money and talent could not alone. I actually called Coach Colgate, then 73, to thank him for not giving up on me, even though I was not his most talented athlete."

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Nick Peruski (MI '19)

"I have always been interested in teaching and learning. When I began my undergraduate program I was fascinated by science, specifically genetics. I knew that I wanted to do something in that field. My husband convinced me that I would be a great teacher, and that planted a seed in my mind. I knew he was correct one day after helping my younger cousin Ethan with some math homework. The rest just kind of worked itself out.

"I have been lucky to teach both middle and high school. I have enjoyed seeing how student behavior and learning evolve at various grade levels. At the middle school, I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to coach both cross country and track. It was such a powerful experience seeing students outside of the classroom and excelling in non-academics. I miss my Donut Run Crew—we used to meet early, 90 minutes before school began, to condition between the cross country and track seasons. We would run about three miles to the Milford Bakery for donuts and juice. When entering education, I never considered the experiences outside the classroom that I would share with students as well."

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Steven Gamache (LA '19)

"In college I became an English major because those were the classes I was most passionate about. As I started getting practical about how to use my degree, I thought back to pivotal English teachers I had in high school and college—teachers who helped me unlock a deeper meaning in a text or gave me the tools to see the world differently. Being an English teacher meant that I got to read, write and discuss books every day! It was like never leaving college. I always seek to create the accepting academic environments that I remember so fondly from my own experiences."

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Dan Willever (NJ '19)

"I don’t think there is one specific factor or moment I can point to in my life. I have always enjoyed working with younger people, helping them in any way that I can. Teaching is just a more formal version of that, really. I also am passionate about history and social sciences, and for me the best way to act on my passion is to share it with others. Beyond that, I have a deeply rooted philosophy that public education and social studies education are so very important if our country and our world are going to thrive. That’s what is at the forefront of my mind as I’m getting to work every morning."

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Ben Nguyen (NV '19)

"I fondly remember doing volunteer teaching, coaching and mentoring throughout my school years. I enjoyed tutoring friends on various topics and experimenting with many scientific ideas as a child (some that would get me in trouble nowadays!).

"In college, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach at an orphanage in my ancestral hometown of Hue in Central Vietnam and in the Republic of the Marshall Islands through the Dartmouth Volunteer Teaching Program. Those experiences during the first two years of my undergraduate education shaped my understanding of the important role of teaching. We use education to share our knowledge, innovations and compassion with others, knowing that they will use what they learn to improve life for their loved ones and themselves."

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Alison Ter Horst (SD '19)

"I originally wanted to be a guidance counselor, so that’s why my major was psychology. But at the time, my advisor in college suggested I should teach for a few years, then go back for my master’s in guidance counseling. But I loved the classroom so much, I never went back for that counseling degree (though I did get a master’s in educational leadership). I’d wanted to go into counseling because of my passion for relationships. I only discovered my passion for the classroom during my student teaching."

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Liz Landes (PA '19)

"I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. In first grade I wanted to be a first grade teacher. In second grade I wanted to be a second grade teacher, and so on. When I graduated high school I wanted to teach AP Biology. I thought I would realize that I wanted to be a college professor when I went to college, but I didn’t.

"Much of what I enjoyed about my high school experience involved my participation in numerous extracurricular activities. Teaching high school allows me to get to know students on a more personal level both in the classroom and as the adviser of after school activities. I decided to teach because I have always enjoyed learning and I want to share this passion with my students and help them identify their passions."

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Erin Wyatt (MD '19)

"I have always been surrounded by educators in my church and family. My parents are educators. My father, Retired Command Sergeant Major, was a Junior ROTC instructor for at least 13 years. My mother, who has been an educator for more than 30 years, truly influenced my love for the field of education. Their compassion for helping students is amazing. My high school teacher, Ms. Sue Fox, was phenomenal and so influential in my love for science. She inspired many of my classmates to pursue careers in science.

"I initially wanted to pursue a career in medicine or scientific research. I attended Yale University’s pre- medical summer program and did various research internships. When I started my family, I realized I wanted to do more. I wanted to encourage students to embrace the world of science and its impact on society. I wanted to help students take advantage of wonderful career opportunities. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing my students grow and embrace their potential for learning."

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Ryan Sykes (VA '19)

"My brother told me that if I became a teacher, I would never want for a job and I would always be able to take care of myself. I almost didn’t get to teach; I failed the Praxis exam multiple times to get my teacher’s license. But I persevered and prepared. After failing it five times, when I got the opportunity to take the test again, I was ready. I passed and graduated from Virginia State University in 2011.

"Once I started teaching, it was about more than taking care of myself. Teaching became an opportunity for me to help students #MakeItPOP (Perseverance + Opportunity + Preparation = Success). I am truly honored to have the opportunity to help underprivileged students 'make it' through education like I did. I feel like I am anointed to care because of the traumatic experiences I survived as an adolescent. Those experiences allowed me to develop and display a certain level of empathy that is simply unmatched."

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Lauren Sepulveda (CT '19)

"I was extremely lucky to have teachers who lifted me up. Many of my teachers worked hard to ensure all of their students were cared for. I wanted to be able to do the same for others. In addition to this, I have a passion for social studies. I believe our youth should be able to see themselves reflected in their history curriculum. My love for kids and passion for bringing equity into the classroom drove my desire to teach."

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Raisa Eady (AL '19)

"It was an easy decision for me. I knew I loved science, and I knew I loved school. I also had amazing teachers who had a significant impact on my life. I wanted to do the same for the upcoming generation. I love teaching high school students for many reasons, but the most rewarding things are being able to foster positive relationships and serve as a supportive force in their future."

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Claire Smullen (DC '19)

"My father was an amazing educator at Derry Area High School in Derry, Pennsylvania, where I graduated in 2004. As a senior I was in my father’s history class and saw firsthand how many students’ lives he touched. He has been retired for many years now, but he still runs into students who greet him with such warmth and love. I grew up with an example of the powerful ability that teachers have to touch the lives of their students.

"I’ve always loved art, but as I started my career in graphic design right out of college, I realized just how much I longed to make meaningful connections with students and develop the relationships that I saw my father foster as a teacher. It was soon after moving to D.C. that I shifted careers and began teaching."

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