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.