Peace Corps Fellows at TC ☆

The Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Peace Corps Fellows Program recruits Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in New York City’s high-needs public schools while concurrently working towards a Masters degree.  The program at TC is the nationwide flagship and has just celebrated a 25th anniversary, just as the national Peace Corps program marked its own 50 years.  To honor both milestones, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a proclamation both for the program and for the Jaffes for their longstanding support.

How does this alternate route to teaching certification work at TC? 

Each May, about 20 new Fellows begin an intensive summer training orienting them to urban education.  Training runs through the end of August and fulfills NYSED Transitional B Certification.  While school is still in session, Fellows observe and participate in New York City public schools and begin their TC coursework.  This summer session includes workshops on classroom management, plus seminars that speak to the heart of the program: “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” led by Professor Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz of the English Education Program, and “Social Justice Education” taught by Professor Ernest Morrell, the new Director of the Institute for Urban Minority Education.  The Fellows’ summer work fulfills the 200 hours required by New York State law for Transitional B Certification for teachers.

Then that fall, Fellows teach full-time in salaried positions in city public schools (most often in Washington Heights, the Bronx or Brooklyn).  These jobs are often secured with the help of a tight-knit program alumni network.  Fellows make a minimum three-year commitment to teaching and their TC Masters degree coursework must be completed within this time.  In the Arts & Humanities Department, Fellows may pursue their degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education, English Education or Teaching of Social Studies.

Financial support for Fellows comes in the form of partial scholarships made possible by private funding as well as AmeriCorps educational awards.  Fellows can generally expect to have 40-50% of their total tuition costs covered, program Assistant Director Kim Swanson explains.  “The DOE also counts their Peace Corps experience as additional teaching experience so they start on the pay scale as a third year teacher,” Swanson adds.

While Swanson works closely with the Fellows, (and is perhaps uniquely qualified to do so, having gone through the program herself), Nicolas Stahelin, Associate Director, focuses more on the organizational aspect.  He views the program as “an intricate web of relationships with not just institutions but different parts of those institutions.  We partner with a range of departments and offices at TC, but then we also partner with Peace Corps, Fellows USA, and AmeriCorps.” Stahelin, a TC alum with an MA in International Educational Development, credits the staff’s collective experience working with teachers, school-community partnerships, and higher education for the program’s ability to navigate “the complex multicultural and institutional context of New York City schools.”

So what is the life of a Fellow like?–Studying for a Masters, acclimating to a new career, adjusting to a new city?  “Grueling,” says Nathan Blom, English Education Ph.D. candidate and a mentor for that program. To ease the transition, Fellows are paired with a TC mentor like Blom who observes their teaching and meets with them often to provide support and feedback.  Blom explains that in his role as advisor, what he offers is “part practical workshop (how to write a lesson plan) and part therapist (tips on getting more sleep at night).”  He is there to help fellows through an intense first year of the program.

Bilingual/Bicultural Department Professor Maria Torres-Guzman, whom Stahelin describes as “an old friend of the program”, has been a mentor since its inception 25 years ago.  She echoes Blom’s assessment of first year challenges, and credits the positive outlook and inquisitive nature that many Fellows possess as instrumental to making it through.  “They come here with a great heart and the intent to be the best that they can be,” Torres-Guzman says.

Does serving and teaching in the Peace Corps provide preparation for teaching in New York City?  You’d be “crazy” to assume that, Blom asserts, citing his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching five Nepalese fourth graders as tough to parallel to a crowded urban classroom.  That said, he continues, “Fellows come with unique gifts:  the ability to face adversity and to work in less-than-ideal surroundings.  They don’t expect it to be frictionless.”  Blom also cites the cross-cultural awareness that the Peace Corps fosters as invaluable to city teaching, a sentiment echoed by Torres-Guzman, who also admires the “social justice fire” of the Fellows.  What’s been her advice over the years?  “I tell Fellows to view New York City as a third world country because that’s a useful way to see what they might encounter.”

The Peace Corps Fellows Program has an impressive roster of alumni, including administrators, DOE staff and educators who’ve started their own schools.  Profiles on alumni, plus current Fellows, are forthcoming and will be found here.