In a conversation with current math teacher and Breakthrough Providence student and Teaching Fellow alumnus, Ashaad Tillman, we learned about the origins of his dedication and passion for working with young people. His journey began as a Breakthrough middle school student, where he developed confidence and an affinity for learning.  Then, as a Breakthrough Teaching Fellow, it was the relationships he built with his students that ignited his passion for mentorship and leading his own classroom. By the end of our conversation, Ashaad emphasized Breakthrough’s profound impact on his career and underscored the critical importance of representation and educational equity.

Q: Thanks for joining us, Ashaad. To begin, could you share your Breakthrough experience and how it sparked your enthusiasm for teaching?

Sure, I was a student at Breakthrough Providence, which is where I’m from originally. I attended Breakthrough from seventh to ninth grade, and then became a Teaching Fellow when I was 17. Breakthrough really helped me discover my passion for teaching. Initially, I was interested in architecture because I liked math and art. However, being involved with Breakthrough made me realize how much I loved being in the classroom, especially when I saw kids relating to me and looking up to me as a teacher. It was particularly meaningful because, despite attending public schools, I had very few Black teachers. Seeing the kids’ light bulbs go off and knowing I could be a positive role model was incredibly rewarding.

Q: We know how disproportionate teachers of color are to white teachers in our school system. What was it like to have a Black teacher for the first time, and how did that influence your teaching approach?

Seeing my first Black teacher in tenth grade was a pivotal experience. It felt like outside of my family, finally, there was someone who looked like me and understood my background. These teachers held me accountable in a way that felt familial. They expected the best from me and held me to a high standard when I wasn’t giving 100%. I adopted a similar approach with my students, fostering a relationship where they felt supported yet challenged. I wanted them to know I believed in their potential, just as my teachers had believed in mine.

Q: What was the transition like from being a Breakthrough student to being a Teaching Fellow?

It was quite interesting. I was often jokingly called the poster child of Breakthrough Providence because I never really left. I loved the high energy and joy that Breakthrough brought to the classroom. My teachers always found ways to make learning fun and engaging, whether through games, music, or field trips off campus. This approach was a stark contrast to the more rigid, traditional methods I experienced in my regular school. These experiences shaped my teaching style, which focuses on making learning enjoyable and interactive.

Q: Can you share some specific ways Breakthrough has influenced your current teaching practices?

Absolutely. Breakthrough taught me the importance of bringing a sense of play and joy into the classroom. I start my lessons with engaging activities, such as videos or songs, to capture my students’ attention. I have themed days like Music Mondays and Fun Fridays to keep things fresh. Additionally, the structured lesson planning I learned at Breakthrough has been invaluable. I always start with a warm-up, followed by a mini-lesson to maintain attention, and then an activity that gets the kids moving and interacting. This structure keeps the classroom dynamic and engaging.

Q: How has Breakthrough’s approach to educational equity influenced your perspective and work in a school setting?

Breakthrough’s focus on educational equity has significantly influenced how I view enrollment and faculty retention at my current school. While we are a private school with a predominantly white student body, I’ve worked to foster partnerships with neighboring high schools that have more diverse populations. This cross-collaboration allows our students to engage with a more diverse group of peers, enhancing their educational experience. Additionally, I’ve seen a positive shift in our faculty’s diversity and retention, influenced by the inclusive practices I observed at Breakthrough.

Q: Why do you think programs like Breakthrough are important?

Programs like Breakthrough are crucial because they change students’ perceptions of what school can be. They offer a vibrant, engaging learning environment that contrasts with the often rigid, traditional methods. Moreover, the representation these programs provide is vital. Seeing someone who looks like you in a role you might not have considered for yourself can be incredibly inspiring and impactful. Breakthrough helps create a more inclusive and motivating educational experience for all students.

To hear more Breakthrough alumni stories, check out our alumni page.