Teaching has always been a profession for the courageous, but it’s gotten a whole lot tougher since the onset of the COVID pandemic. A recent New York Times article describes teachers putting in 13-hour days, “tirelessly toggling between in-person and remote students” and disinfecting desks between classes.
There are no easy remedies for the situation — but for those searching for examples of teacher resilience bolstered by effective supports and validated by superior retention, Teachers College’s Peace Corps Fellows Program may provide some insights into how best to support teachers during a crisis.
Watch a video about TC’s Peace Corps Fellows Program
The old adage, “Think globally, act locally” is the essence of the Peace Corps Fellows Program. After teaching for two years in the Peace Corps, Jaffe Fellows return to serve as educators in New York City public schools. (The Jaffe Fellows are so named because the Jaffe family are longtime supporters of the Peace Corps Fellows Program.) Established in 1985 as the first initiative of its kind, the program prepares and supports Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) as they become teachers in high-need New York City public schools. Over the years, 780 of its graduates have taught, overseen departments, joined administrative teams, started schools, earned doctorates and, in general, made a positive impact on learning communities throughout New York City.
To cite just one telling statistic: In the past five years alone, while the teaching profession nationally has experienced 50 percent turnover among new teachers, the Peace Corps Fellows Program has prepared 52 New York City teachers, every single one of whom is still teaching. (Eight are no longer in New York City, for reasons related to their families.)
Without question, a major factor in that remarkable success is that, even among teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, by definition, are a resilient, determined and idealistic bunch.
Our cohorts are filled with compassionate, brave, action-oriented and attentive people. They’ve served as educators in some of the world’s developing countries, and they return to serve in New York City’s most challenging schools, teaching essential subjects. As a result, they are both sought after by school administrators and beloved by Teachers College professors.
—Elaine Perlman, Director, Peace Corps Fellows Program
“The Peace Corps Fellows Program attracts teachers with a dedication to serving students’ needs, a devotion to social justice, a commitment to the pursuit of peace, and a passion for education,” says the Peace Corps Fellows Program’s Director, Elaine Perlman (M.A. ’92). “Our cohorts are filled with compassionate, brave, action-oriented and attentive people. They’ve served as educators in some of the world’s developing countries, and they return to serve in New York City’s most challenging schools, teaching essential subjects — special education, bilingual/ bicultural education, English, social studies, mathematics, science, and English as a second language. Jaffe Fellows are warm-hearted community builders, natural leaders, and super bright. As a result, they are both sought after by school administrators and beloved by Teachers College professors.”
“Many of the returning Peace Corps veterans come back to the United States with a more nuanced perspective of the world and greater insights into the opportunities afforded by our society,” says Michele St. John-Denerstein (M.A. ’18), who attended Williams College, volunteered for the Peace Corps in Ivory Coast, and now teaches middle school English in Upper Manhattan. “Serving as Jaffe Fellows allows us to communicate that through our lessons.”
Many of the returning Peace Corps veterans come back to the United States with a more nuanced perspective of the world and greater insights into the opportunities afforded by our society. Serving as Jaffe Fellows allows us to communicate that through our lessons.
—Michele St. John-Denerstein (M.A. ’18)
In addition to supplying outstanding teachers for New York City students, the program provides extensive supports for the Jaffe Fellows as they launch their careers.
For starters, upon completing a three-month Intensive Summer Institute, the Jaffe Peace Corps Fellows work as full-time, certified teachers earning $58,300 annually, plus benefits, while earning their TC master’s degrees. Since 2019, thanks to the support of the Jaffe family and Teachers College, the Program has offered 100 percent tuition scholarships to up to a dozen Jaffe Peace Corps Fellows.
[Read a story on the support provided to the Jaffe Peace Corps Fellows by the Jaffe family and TC alumna Amity Buxton (Ph.D. ’62, M.A. ’52).]
While earning their degrees, Fellows are mentored by seasoned educators who observe them monthly in their classrooms and provide verbal and written feedback. (Perlman, too, makes classroom visits.) The program also offers participants monthly seminars, visits to schools throughout the city to speak with principals, workshops on how to conduct field trips at cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harlem Studio Museum, fieldwork experiences with Program alumni and more. In recent years, the Jaffe Fellows have hosted students from the Eagle Academy of Harlem, an all-boys’ public school, for a question-and-answer panel with TC graduate students of color. They have painted 11 murals to benefit the school community at the John Russwurm Elementary 197 School in Central Harlem. And they have volunteered at the Harlem Grown urban farm, where they promote healthy living and provide free produce for the community.
These bright young people return from the Peace Corps after serving in some of the most challenging places on Earth. They have been tested, and yet they continue to show their determination to make the world better as great teachers.
—Longtime program supporter and TC Trustee Emeritus Elliot Jaffe
In 2018, the PeaceMakers Speakers Series was launched for the Jaffe Fellows and the Teachers College community, drawing guest speakers such as National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning (a former Peace Corps volunteer), Dr. Elizabeth Bishop, youth development professor and leader at Global Kids, and Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President. And the Jaffe Peace Corps Fellows have been invited by the Jaffe family to bring their students to a wide range of musical and theater performances at Lincoln Center.
“These bright young people return from the Peace Corps after serving in some of the most challenging places on Earth,” said TC Trustee Emeritus Elliot Jaffe in 2019, explaining his long track record of support for the program. “They have been tested, and yet they continue to show their determination to make the world better as great teachers. And what better place is there than a New York City classroom for them to bring more good to the world?”