Melissa pressed submit on her Teachers College application for the Social Studies Education program from an Internet café in Argentina. She was traveling in Latin America after just finishing two years and three months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras. While there, she experienced a coup d’etat that ousted the president of Honduras. As she discussed with the people around her their changing relationships to government and resistance, civics suddenly took on a new meaning and new life for Melissa. She had always wanted to be a teacher, but it was her time in Honduras that inspired her to pursue a degree in the teaching of social studies.
When looking for graduate programs in social studies education, Melissa describes finding the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College as a “kismet moment.” The Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College is a teacher certification program that supports Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) as they become outstanding New York City public school teachers in high-need schools while earning a master’s degree from Teachers College. Melissa was thrilled to find a program that combined a connection to the Peace Corps, a community that remains very important to her, with the opportunities and progressive movements thriving in New York City education. Smiling she says, “I felt like it had to be.” One week after she returned to the United States, Melissa interviewed for the program.
Once in the program, Melissa embraced the mixture of hands-on classroom teaching experience with the work she was doing in her courses at Teachers College. Melissa found a necessary counterpart to the emotional experience and extreme dedication of her first year of teaching in the educational theory and reflection she was reading and writing for her own coursework. “The combination was very powerful,” she says, “Whenever you’re in practice and also in spaces where you can reflect and discuss, that’s extremely important.” Central to Melissa’s experience was her relationship with her advisor, Associate Professor of Social Studies, Sandra Schmidt. In Professor Schmidt, Melissa found, “an incredible support in terms of curriculum development, in terms of exploring topics that are not necessarily in a typical history book, and in terms of connecting me to important resources and professional development.” In the years since Melissa graduated, she and Professor Schmidt continue to be in touch. “She’s always been able make time for me, invite me back, and share information with me,” Melissa says, “Her dedication to the students, I think, is something you don’t often see.”
It was at an event at Teachers College for the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps Fellows Program that Melissa first met the principal for the school where she has been teaching for the past 7 years. Melissa teaches 9th and 10th grade Global History at an international school for recent immigrants and English Language Learners. “It was a place I immediately knew I wanted to work.” Melissa’s school is part of the International Network for Public Schools, an organization she first learned about through her observation hours as part of the Peace Corps Fellows Program. “I am very dedicated to that network,” she says, “They do amazing work.”
In her classroom now, in the curriculum that she creates and teaches, Melissa continues to apply concepts about social studies education that she began to think about as a student in the Peace Corps Fellows Program. She avoids a traditional form of history teaching that focuses on the memorization of dates and places at the expense of examining human experience. She wants her students to keep in mind that they are “studying people and that means you’re studying their history, you’re studying their motivations, you’re studying their decision making process, you’re studying the way they connect with another.” She went on to say, “That is something that TC thinks about and is something that I carry with me.”