Alumnus Update: Q&A with Kristen Paonessa

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 By Olivia Allen 

Kris­ten Paonessa, a 2012 grad­u­ate of North­east­ern and an alum­nus of SEI recently com­pleted her first year as a Teach for Amer­ica — Hous­ton corps mem­ber. Learn more about Kristen’s chal­lenges, suc­cesses, and key take­aways from her first year as a 6th and 8th grade read­ing teacher in the Hous­ton Inde­pen­dent School Dis­trict below.  

1. What do you con­sider to be your biggest accom­plish­ment this year?

My great­est pro­fes­sional accom­plish­ment this year was work­ing with a strug­gling 8th grade reader to help her grow three years in read­ing com­pre­hen­sion in one school year. My great­est per­sonal accom­plish­ment has been learn­ing to be incred­i­bly flex­i­ble in all facets of my life.

2. What was your biggest challenge?

My largest pro­fes­sional chal­lenge this year was striv­ing to be an effec­tive teacher with­out an on-campus men­tor. We have a lim­ited fac­ulty at the school I was hired by, and our entire Eng­lish & Lan­guage Arts depart­ment was com­prised of first year TFA teach­ers. Con­se­quently, I had to con­tin­u­ously seek out­side assis­tance in learn­ing my con­tent so that I was being the most effec­tive teacher for my stu­dents. My largest per­sonal chal­lenge was com­ing to terms with real­iz­ing that your hard work does not always get rec­og­nized, but that can’t stop you from pur­su­ing your end goal. Per­sonal drive and intrin­sic moti­va­tion must keep you mov­ing, not extrin­sic rewards and appraisal.

3. What key take­aways or lessons will you imple­ment into your role as second-year teacher?

Col­lab­o­ra­tion is key! I have fully come to under­stand that I alone can­not do every­thing for my stu­dents. This seems obvi­ous, but at times your ego gets in the way, and you for­get that they only have you for one year of their life. Next year I’m com­mit­ted to build­ing a team around my students–of their fam­ily mem­bers, coaches, reli­gious lead­ers, com­mu­nity lead­ers, etc. This team will help sus­tain the vision that I have for each of my stu­dents, and will help the stu­dents achieve the goals that they have for them­selves long after they leave my classroom.

4. What expe­ri­ences of classes as an under­grad­u­ate at North­east­ern best pre­pare you for this experience?

There were a col­lec­tion of courses that helped me pre­pare for this expe­ri­ence. I fre­quently ref­er­ence Pro­fes­sor Den­nis Shaughnessy’s SEI courses when enthu­si­as­ti­cally and crit­i­cally think­ing about solu­tions to the inef­fi­cien­cies that plague the edu­ca­tion sys­tem in Hous­ton with my fel­low TFA teach­ers and key stake­hold­ers. Fur­ther­more, I often draw on my learn­ing from Rebecca Ricio’s Strate­gic Phil­an­thropy and Non­profit Man­age­ment class. It helps me eval­u­ate how TFA can con­tin­u­ously improve as an orga­ni­za­tion, and to deter­mine which of the non­prof­its that are work­ing in the com­mu­ni­ties my stu­dents live in are wor­thy of fur­ther part­ner­ship with my school. Lastly, I credit my Inter­na­tional Affairs and Human Ser­vices classes to be the rea­son why I’m so read­ily adapt­able to my stu­dents’ His­panic cul­tural back­grounds. Although I don’t share their same eth­nic or lan­guage back­ground, I have been able to over­come those dif­fer­ences to build long-lasting rela­tion­ships because of my expe­ri­ences with dif­fer­ent peo­ple and cul­tures as a result of my IAF degree.

5. What advice do you have for those pur­su­ing TFA or teach­ing in general?

If you are ready to work relent­lessly, if you are ready to be flex­i­ble and resource­ful, if you have a pas­sion for work­ing with kids, and most impor­tantly, if you are ready to con­tin­u­ously advo­cate on what is best for the stu­dents, then you are ready to be an educator.