Jamal, a third-grader at Glen Lea Elementary School, loved coming to the Youth Life Learning Center, an after-school program for children from Delmont Plaza, a subsidized apartment complex on Richmond’s north side. He clearly benefitted from the tutoring and mentoring program, but his attendance was sporadic, and when he did show up, he often fell asleep.
The learning center’s founder, Heather Brown Goodlett, ’94, had quit her job as a reading specialist at Glen Lea so she could work more closely with children like Jamal. His family life was so chaotic that no one woke him each morning or sent him to bed at an appropriate time. After missing school, he sometimes tried to sneak into the after-school program, but only students who went to school that day could attend.
So the learning center bought Jamal an alarm clock, showed him how to use it, and told him he would have to be responsible for going to bed earlier. From that day on, he started making it to school—and to the Youth Life Learning Center.
Goodlett is one among thousands of K-12 teachers UR has trained over the years. Richmond graduates good teachers, but more importantly the University produces passionate educators who strive to make a big difference in children’s lives.
UR’s Department of Education was on the chopping block 10 years ago, but the University’s faculty and alumni rallied to save it. They sent a clear message “that part of the undergraduate mission should be to prepare teachers,” recalls Dr. Patricia Stohr-Hunt, who chairs the department.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive. K-12 teachers educated at Richmond are in high demand, and several have won prestigious local and national teaching awards in recent years.
In addition to the traditional undergraduate approach, the University’s School of Continuing Studies launched a teacher licensure program in 2000 for people with undergraduate degrees who want to become K-12 teachers. In the past five years, 256 students have graduated from the licensure program, and 125 students have graduated from the traditional program.
One of the strengths of the undergraduate program is that nearly 70 percent of its students study abroad for a full semester or a whole summer, Stohr-Hunt says. “The students are much more grounded and have a better sense of their place in their world. ... I think that helps a lot when they are teaching.”
The program also prepares students for the diversity they will encounter in the real world and how it will affect their teaching.
At Richmond, Goodlett majored in speech communication and specialized in early childhood education. She always wanted to be a teacher, but she was not sure where exactly that desire would lead. Like many of Richmond’s alumni teachers, she views K-12 education as more of a calling than a career.
Goodlett opened the Youth Life Learning Center in 2003, and her nonprofit organization plans to open a second center this year in Richmond’s north side. The mission is to develop leaders by making long-term investments in at-risk children in kindergarten through ninth grade.
Kenny Graves, '09, tackles a project in his Techonology in Teaching class.
The learning center works closely with Glen Lea Elementary School. Unlike many after-school programs, it hires certified teachers or sends them to school to get certified. The center currently has 28 students and two full-time teachers.
About 50 mentors volunteer at the center during any given month. Some are educators, while others are college students or business people. The center requires mentors to commit for at least one year.
“You can’t just come in and out of these kids lives, because they’ve had so much loss and insecurity,” Goodlett says. “The children are smart, but they’ve just been beaten down and told they’re not going to amount to much. … Our thing is to figure out, for each of them, what makes their heart beat and gets them excited and plug them into that.”
Shaphana, a sixth-grader, had a “what’s-the-point-of-school” attitude and a passion for nursing, so the learning center put her in a summer program where she shadowed nurses for a week. Shaphana is now a hard-working ninth-grader with “a purpose and a vision,” Goodlett says.
The program’s long-term approach is critical to its success, she emphasizes. “If you want to see a quick fix, this is not the program to be in. It takes years to undo some of the [negative] thought processes, but it’s worth it when I see our ninth-graders who have come through all that.”
Kenny Graves, ’09, is majoring in English with minors in secondary education and Spanish. He has wanted to be a teacher as long as he can remember.
“My mom still has pictures of me in our basement at a chalkboard,” Graves says. “I have teachers on both sides of my family, so my parents were not surprised when I developed a passion for it.”
UR’s education department was one of the most important factors that attracted Graves to Richmond. Faculty members are always available and willing to help students become the best teachers they can be, he says.
“Instead of facilitating a mere teacher-student relationship, the faculty works with students to become colleagues in the field of teaching. I feel very prepared to enter the classroom, not only as an instructor, but also as a role model.”
The Upper Marlboro, Md., native initially planned to become an elementary school teacher, but as he grew older, he says, “the secondary level really intrigued me.” After graduation, Graves plans to head straight to the classroom to gain experience. His ultimate goal, however, is to become a college professor and prepare other teachers to teach in K-12 classrooms.
Erin McCracken, ’05, also hopes to teach in a university education department or psychology department someday. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in risk and prevention in education sciences at the University of Virginia.
Erin McCracken, ’05, taught middle school and elementary school students in Japan for two and a half years.
The research-based program concentrates on “at-risk children and policies that affect them,” says McCracken, who is focusing her research on mass instruction and teacher quality.
A native of Paxton, Mass., McCracken majored in psychology with minors in education and studio art at UR. She also taught at a free alternative school for students from low-income families in Ecuador during her undergraduate experience.
After graduating from Richmond, McCracken declined a Fulbright grant to teach in Malaysia and accepted a position with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, where she taught elementary and middle school English for two and a half years.
Growing up in a small New England town, she was unaware of some of the issues facing at-risk students. Her experience teaching around the world made her realize there are similar problems everywhere, particularly when it comes to poverty and motivation.
McCracken did not know she wanted to be a teacher until she took an introduction to education class at Richmond.
“The teacher education program is very strong, and almost everyone who graduates is in high demand,” she says. “Even though the program is really small, it is very rigorous.”
Time is a great teacher, and teachers with more life experiences have better answers to the inevitable K-12 question of “Why do we have to learn this?”
Life experiences abound among students in Richmond’s teacher licensure program. It has attracted everyone from a classical guitarist to a seaweed farmer.
“Our preparation centers on teaching how to teach, or pedagogical skills,” says Dr. Catherine Fisher, director of the program. “Our students already have the passion to teach because they have made this decision after having experiences in life that help them understand the need to contribute to society.”
Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree, but many have master’s degrees, and three or four have doctorates. They need 33 credit hours for elementary school certification or 30 credit hours for secondary school certification. Most people in the program are in their late 20s to mid-40s.
Richmond native Ben Allred completed the program in 2004. He always wanted to be a teacher, but in this 20s and 30s, he worried that teaching would not pay well enough. So he spent seven years as a fundraiser for non-profit organizations and three years as a trust accountant.
Finally, he was ready to pursue his dream of teaching. He took night classes in UR’s licensure program for two and a half years while being a stay-at-home dad to his two daughters. The program was rigorous, but Allred says professors were sensitive to the fact that most of the participants were not traditional students.
“I was 40 at the time and was apprehensive,” he recalls. “Could I still handle the rigors of schoolwork?” Allred also was concerned about competing against experienced educators for
His first interview was at Pocahontas Middle School in Henrico County, Va. He says Richmond’s reputation for developing outstanding teachers made the difference.
“When I sat down with the principal, I explained what the UR licensure program was all about, how rigorous it was, and gave him examples of my work,” Allred says. “That’s what pushed me over the top.”
Allred is now in his fourth year teaching seventh-grade social studies at the school. When he tells people he teaches middle school, their first response is often, “Oh … I’m sorry.”
Middle school kids drive most adults crazy, Allred concedes. But “they’re intelligent and energetic, and there’s never a dull moment. … These kids are watching CNN, C-SPAN, the History Channel, and Discovery Channel,” he says. “It’s like carrying on a conversation with little adults—who don’t behave particularly well.”
Allred won the school’s first-year teacher award. “I’ve never enjoyed a job as much as this one,” he says. “I work harder at this than any other job I’ve had before, but I’m doing what I love.”
Other Richmond alumni teachers have completed licensure programs elsewhere. Christopher Poulos, ’97, a graduate of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, earned his teaching credentials from Connecticut’s Alternate Route to Certification Program.
Christopher Poulos, ’97, (bottom right) and his students expanded a library in Costa Rica.
Last year, he was selected from a field of 48,000 teachers as Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
Poulos teaches Spanish at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn. He encourages students to immerse themselves in Spanish language and culture by volunteering for organizations where Spanish is spoken. During the summer, he takes student groups to Costa Rica to work on community service projects. His first year on the job, Poulos also completed a master’s degree in Spanish from Columbia University.
At Richmond, Poulos minored in Spanish and business, and he put a lot of thought into what he wanted to do in the real world. “I could go to work in Washington as a bureaucrat, I could get a job at a bank … or I could do something different,” he reasoned.
His liberal arts education pointed him toward community service, so he joined the Peace Corps and worked for two years in Guanja-Talgua, Honduras, where he did everything from helping children with science projects to training farmers. The rural village had about 400 residents, 40 houses, and no electricity.
“They made $800 a year for a family, and when I walked by their houses, they’d invite me in,” Poulos recalls. “They were poor people, but very sincere and genuine.”
Today, Poulos brings that experience into the classroom. “As a classroom teacher, you have that ability to promote that culture in the classroom,” he says. “I can make a difference in how kids view the world and humanity.”
In February 2008, Goodlett stepped down as executive director of the Youth Life Learning Center to spend more time with her growing family.
She plans to remain active on the board and as a volunteer, and she expects to be at Delmont Plaza more often, now that she will not be as busy with administration and fundraising.
Over the years, many Delmont residents have become like family to her. They attended her wedding two years ago to Raymond Goodlett, a campus minister with Every Nation Campus Ministries at UR. Shaphana was the guest book attendant, and Miguel—a boy everyone once wrote off as “too difficult”—handed out programs.
Things have improved somewhat at Delmont Plaza. Its new managers have spruced up the apartments, but it’s still a dangerous place for a child, or a teacher for that matter.
“We just had a bullet come through a window at the learning center during the holiday season,” Goodlett says. “Thankfully we were out for the holidays.”
Teaching is tough enough in affluent school districts. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, the risks are greater, but so are the rewards.
“If I had known how difficult the past five years would be, I don’t know if I would have signed up for it,” Goodlett admits. “But I’m glad I did, because in the past five years, I’ve seen so many positive things happen in people’s lives [including] my own.”
And what about Jamal, the little boy who had to set his own alarm clock? He moved to Tennessee and is succeeding in the seventh grade. “He’s athletic and he’s thriving,” Goodlett says. “His teachers say he’s brilliant.”
Editor’s notes: Heather Goodlett asked the magazine to omit Jamal’s real name in this story. Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.
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