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Zeke Vanderhoek’s School Ties

Topic: Teach For America 

Zeke Vanderhoek: It was a phenomenal experience. I think that during the first year the learning curve was, like most first year teachers, tremendous. And I got what I wanted, which was to be thrown in and to sort of thrive or not thrive based on my own abilities. So, I got the challenge that I was looking for. Teach for America itself has evolved a great deal since I was a core member and I think they are a phenomenal organization. But my experience was really an experience of just a first year teacher in New York City hired by the city, essentially. Teach for America placed me and offered some support but ultimately it was me and 32 sixth graders.

I was a teacher in a school that was pretty chaotic, so for me it was actually great because I got to close my classroom door, nobody knew what I was doing, and I got to be creative and experiment and also find what worked for me. I had a phenomenal mentor who would sit at the back of the room once a week and then debrief with me and he must have saved me from reinventing the wheel. So that was a really positive takeaway. In terms of the school environment itself what I took away was that there are pockets of greatness in a lot of schools. There were colleagues of mine who were phenomenal but to a large extent they are the exception not the rule in an under-resourced urban school.

My own experience at the middle school, the public middle school that I taught in, was that there were core members like myself who were placed in the school and there were other teachers who had nothing to do with Teach for America and we got along very well. There was little, “Oh, you were placed to this program or you weren’t.” There are a lot of veteran teachers. I mentioned the mentor who was a retired veteran teacher who was just a phenomenal influence on me and my teaching style. So, I think in general Teach for America is a wonderful organization because it gets people into teaching who might not otherwise consider it. And if you look at a lot of Teach for America alumni a lot of us remain in education, many in the classroom, many starting schools and many at as more senior level in administration or in, at the district level.

Question: What makes an effective teacher?

Zeke Vanderhoek: I think a teacher that responded to me as an individual, took an interest in me and my own sort of ideas or my own personality and went beyond just sort of what was in the book. That’s one element and the other element was really I remember my history teacher in ninth grade and 11th grade. She really made you see the world in a different way. So, a great teacher in that sense was somebody who really challenged his or her students to get out from their own world, from their own perspective and see things that they never thought of before, ways of seeing the world.

Recorded on: June 30, 2009

The founder of Manhattan’s new charter institution remembers his life in the Teach for America trenches.

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