Many Breakthrough teaching fellows pursue education careers with programs such as Teach For America, MATCH Teacher Residency and Boston Teacher Residency.
From time to time, we like to hear from our alumni out in the world of teaching describe how their experience teaching at Breakthrough influenced their career path. Read below to learn about Anjali Nirmalan, Breakthrough Cambridge Alumna and current MATCH Teacher Resident!
Q When/where did you do Breakthrough? What did you teach?
A. I taught at Breakthrough Cambridge (yeah, BTC!) the summers of 2009 and 2010. The first summer, I taught a "Bridgeblock" course for 8th graders called "Future Breakthrough Teachers." My students spent 10 hours a week diving into the history, politics, and sociology of American education, and 4 hours a week tutoring 3rd graders in the finer arts of multiplication at a summer program down the road. We even published interviews with BTC student alumni who were now teaching at BTC, which got my students excited to go to college and come back in the summer to teach at BTC themselves.
My second summer I taught a Social Studies course for 7th and 8th graders called "Global Crisis: The HIV/Aids Pandemic." My students studied the disease itself as well as aspects of the epidemics all over the world, and then they wrote and performed slam poetry on the topic. They were so fired up that they decided to organize a fundraiser where they performed and raised $400 for the cause. We donated it on our field trip to the Boston Living Center, a community center for Bostonians living with HIV/AIDS.
Q. What was your Breakthrough experience like? What about it made you want to stay in education?
A. Before Breakthrough, I was sure I didn't want to be a teacher. I tried everything else - working in the media, trying to make it as a professional artist, interning in the government, even investment banking - but in the end, none of it ever came close to challenging or fulfilling me like one summer at Breakthrough. I had never been asked to work so hard for something where the stakes were so high. And just like that, I was hooked on teaching.
Q. What made you decide to do MATCH Teacher Residency?
A I knew I didn't want to go straight to a traditional grad program for education. For one thing, I was broke! For another, I figured the best way to become a better teacher was to actually spend a lot of time teaching (after all, hadn't I been a much better teacher in my second summer than my first?). I also wanted to keep teaching the "Breakthrough" way, which is similar to that of No-Excuses charter schools: Do Nows plus Tickets to Leave, high expectations, and strong relationships. That knocked out Teach for America, especially because I wanted more intensive training and feedback. Enter the MATCH Teacher Residency.
At MATCH, you are first and foremost a part of the MATCH Corps. All week you tutor and teach small groups of students with whom you form powerful relationships. You do this alongside other talented newly-graduated tutors who have diverse life plans for post-MATCH: med school, law school, public policy, backpacking through China, or no idea at all. It's a fantastic group of people to work and live with.
On Fridays and Saturdays, it's MATCH Teacher Residency (MTR) training with your fellow Corps members who dare to become courageous "unusually effective" first-year teachers next year. And MTR will get you there. Anyone at MATCH can opt-in to MTR at the beginning of the year, and anyone can have a "healthy exit" from the program if they decide it's not right for them. In exchange for promising to teach for two years, you get a year of invaluable training and personalized coaching.
In the fall, you take MTR courses in all of the practicalities of being a demanding teacher in the classroom, from how to write the tightest Aim/Objective possible, to how to effectively use demerits, to how to reach those unreachable parents. During this whole time, you're applying the moves you learn to your daily tutorials at MATCH. Then you move into Group of Six, where you take turns planning mini 6-minute lesson chunks to deliver to five peers who pretend to be misbehaving students. Your coaches give you tons of feedback on this, from the strength of your voice to your radar in catching misbehavior. During this period, your improvement in authoritative presence is phenomenal. Trust me, that's not something you can learn out of a book! In the spring, you move into student teaching, and that's when you get lots of feedback on your lesson planning as well as experience with larger class sizes. That's also when principals of charter schools from across the country come to check you out personally and invite you to interview for positions at their schools.
4. Q How has your MTR year been similar/different to your experience at Breakthrough?
A MATCH is similar to Breakthrough in that we all feel an intense personal investment in our kids. We shake their hands (or hug them) in the morning, we push them hard throughout the day but joke with them too, we take them out for lunch, we text them at night about their homework, we speak with their parents on a weekly basis, we insist that they're going to college, and we never ever give up on them. As a Breakthrough alumni, you'll already be ahead of the curve in internalizing this approach.
Now imagine that beautiful five-week summer...and expand it from September to June. The honeymoon is over. Working with kids over the course of an entire school-year is hard. First, you can't just put in everything you have and not sleep for days at a time, the way you did at Breakthrough. You have to pace yourself and create some work-home separation (even if work is your home) so that you will be in the best condition to serve your students. Don't crash in November like I did.
Second big difference: students don't always want to be there! They're kids, after all - they never like school, or at least they'll always claim they don't even when they do. So part of your job is to get that "buy-in" from your kids; you become the reason they like being at school, and the reason they reverse their low-effort behavior. Lastly, the stakes are so much higher during the school year than in just the summer. We're trying to get our students ready for the MCAS exams; a proficient score on those can result in scholarships that make the difference in whether that student goes to college or not. Sometimes you have to have the conversation with a student about repeating the year. This is serious business.
Q Is it weird living on the third floor of a school?
A Of course! Think dorm-style young adult hang-out plus work zone. On the plus side, I have a 30-second commute. At the other two MATCH schools (the middle school and a new K-12 school for English Language Learners), the tutors live in apartments further away from the schools. They tell me that this has its own pluses and deltas.
Q Any advice for Breakthrough teachers thinking about a career in the classroom?
A You can't lose with a year at MATCH. It's a year of your life doing something important, whether or not you choose to be a teacher afterwards. It can also be your jumping point into a career in education reform, as is the case for many of my non-MTR peers. But don't expect it to be easy.
As MTR tells you on the website, the work load creates an intensity "not unlike medical school." They're not joking. But while the kids can be hilarious and "wicked smaht", one of the hardest things to deal with - and one of the most important things to learn to deal with - is student pushback and low effort. You can't take it personally. In the face of that pushback, you have to push even harder - not because you're "forcing it," as the kids say, but because they don't know what they need right now to get to college and you do. And there will be brief moments when your students recognize what you do for them - especially later in the year, when they realize that they couldn't get rid of you and finally accept you - and those moments may not be many. But you're going to work hard for them anyway, and they're going to go to college. That's a fact I learned at Breakthrough, and it's true at MATCH too.