First-year teachers return to where they were taught
By Charles Honey - September 27, 2019
Thalia Vega helps Leonardo Romo III with a math exercise in her bilingual classroom at Southwest Community Campus
When she was a young child living in a Spanish-speaking home, Thalia Vega had a reading specialist at Buchanan Elementary School who helped her believe she could get the hang of reading in English. Other teachers also inspired her to believe she could do well if she gave it her best effort.
“Those people at school were like my cheerleaders. They always had something good to say,” Vega said. “The teachers would ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I automatically knew I wanted to be a teacher, because of the staff. They were so very kind, they believed in me.”
She thinks about those teachers as she begins her first year of teaching, in a third grade class at Southwest Community Campus. To be teaching in the same school system she attended makes the connection to her childhood mentors even stronger, she says.
“I am a product of this district,” she said, getting her classroom ready before school one early fall morning. “Teaching, it is a very humbling profession, but even more so if you are serving the district from which you came. You’re able to give back to the community.”
Leonard Garyson feels that gratitude as well. A 1997 graduate of Creston High School, he transitioned this fall from being a paraprofessional to a third grade teacher at Mulick Park Elementary School.
“It means a lot,” said Garyson, known affectionately as “Mr. Bo” to students and staff. “I feel like I’m giving back to myself, in a way. Being able to help people who are in the same situation as me, kids that are growing up in the same environment … (to) be there for them the way a lot of people were for me.”
Right: Thalia Vega gets help from Mercedes Alonso in quieting down her class
As GRPS grads coming back to teach in the city schools, Vega and Garyson offer something extra to the school system and their students, says Nick Swartz, talent acquisition manager for Grand Rapids Public Schools. Research shows students perform better under a teacher who went to their district, and teacher retention is higher, he said.
“It’s a success story that makes an impact,” Swartz said of homegrown teachers. “Students can kind of see themselves in those teachers. That’s going to help make a difference in the lives (of students).”
It may also nudge some students toward teaching to have teachers who “were once in their shoes and maybe look like them,” he added.
As his title suggests, Swartz looks for ways to recruit new teachers at a time when that’s easier said than done, especially for ethnic and racial minority teachers. “We want our teachers to reflect our students as much as possible,” he said.
GRPS encourages current students to consider teaching through programs such as the Academy of Teaching and Learning at Innovation Central High School. Through the Young Educators Society of Michigan, Swartz also takes district students to university conferences on the teaching profession.
With prospective teachers such as Vega and Garyson, Swartz and other officials try to provide support and connections to help them on their way to job interviews. Both worked as GRPS paraprofessionals while completing their college teaching certifications, providing them with income before being hired for their positions this fall.