Since some of his fourth graders only know life through the lens of their tough Los Angeles neighborhoods, Michael Armstrong ’97 shows them pictures of snowy Dartmouth to introduce them to the possibilities of the world.
For 17 years, Armstrong has taught at McKinna Elementary School, a proud but financially strapped school located between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Armstrong says he especially enjoys teaching through special projects, such as asking the kids to help design a school playground.
“It’s critical that they learn how to collaborate, to problem solve, and to be creative and innovative,” he says. “It’s a paradigm shift because I’m not the center of their learning. I’m more of a coach. But the engagement is so much better than having them do a worksheet.”
College is not always an expectation for Armstrong’s students, many of who are from non English-speaking families. Some are expected to work—often on farms—as soon as they turn 18. Armstrong says that one of the challenges is balancing the curricular teaching with providing positive encouragement to students in all ways.
“You’re their parent, their disciplinarian, their counselor, you’re someone to talk with, or give a hug, or counsel,” he says. “It's great to joke with them, and see the world through their eyes. I get to show them that learning is fun.”
Sociology major Marissa Lopez ’09 has taught second grade at Harlem Village Academies in New York City for the past three years. Though she discovered her passion for pedagogy as an intern at a Super Kids camp in Baltimore, it was her experience at Dartmouth that helped shape her decision to dedicate her life to young kids.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate from college,” says Lopez, who is originally from Long Beach, California. “At Dartmouth, my life had endless possibilities. But it all went back to the education I had as a kid that helped me get to Dartmouth. It’s my goal to provide my students with that same chance.”
Like Armstrong, Lopez also enjoys project-based learning, and she recently guided students as they used found and recycled objects to create a 3-D replica of all five New York City boroughs. “I want to create an inquisitive curious and supportive community where kids feel free to take chances and feel inspired. I want to help them realize they are capable of so many things.”
In this video, Marissa Lopez '09 delivers Dartmouth clothing to her second graders.
Nearly 1,000 Dartmouth alumni work as teachers or are deeply involved in education as principals, college counselors, or curriculum designers. Dartmouth Trustee Mitch Kurz ’73, for example, has more than 20 years of experience working with New York City public schools and is academic dean at the Bronx School for Science and Mathematics. Jorge Miranda ’01, former principal of the MATCH School in Boston, is now director of high school leadership development at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Foundation. Many more alumni volunteer their personal time to coach or mentor students.
At the Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, Tamara Battle ’07 has taught AP English and English 10 for the past seven years. She says she loves the school, and she appreciates its socioeconomic diversity—many students speak English as a second language and qualify for free or reduced lunches. Battle says some of her favorite books to teach are The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
When asked what keeps her going on challenging days, Battle says, “On the really tough days I go to the thank-you cards in my closet. One student, now in college, wrote, ‘Thank you for making me write those awful essays so I can be where I am today.’ Another time a student caught cheating yelled at me in the cafeteria, and I broke down. The next day I got an ‘It’s OK Ms. Battle,’ card signed by about 30 students.”
In 2013, Battle was voted by the students to be the staff graduation speaker. But she says she feels her students appreciate her work, even if they don’t always show it. “You’re doing something that they know will make their lives better,” she says.
To pursue that career goal—to make kids’ lives better—seems to be instilled in many alumni. And there are more to come.
After she graduates in June, Frances Buren ’15 will teach pre-school in San Francisco through Teach for America. Buren says she hopes to devote her career to education.
“I have clear memories of teaching invisible classrooms when I was six or seven years old,” she said. “I can’t wait to meet my pre-school students this fall—I loved school as a kid, and the first time I hear one say they love school I will probably cry.”