May 2020 – Earlier this month, Teach for America (TFA) highlighted Drew University alum Iliana Mendez for her inspiring work teaching at University Prep Middle School in the Bronx.
We talked with Mendez about her experiences with TFA—a nonprofit that places college graduates in low-income classrooms—and how Drew prepared her for her current role and where she plans on going next.
How did you get involved in TFA?
I received an email from a TFA corps member my last semester at Drew. I remembered that TFA corps members actually taught me in middle school back in Boston. I decided to go for it after Jaime Ballesteros C’14, who also did TFA, reached out to me and encouraged me to apply.
What have you learned as a TFA teacher?
There’s way more to teaching than just knowing the content. A teacher provides students with the necessary tools and engagement strategies to help them become independent and critical learners. To do that, you have to be aware of the obstacles and systemic barriers they face and advocate for them inside and outside of the classroom.
How did Drew prepare you for this step in your career?
From being an honors student in both Spanish and sociology to being an RA for three years, Drew gave me many opportunities to learn about how the education system operates through a sociological lens. I was able to not just identify the barriers in the system, but to construct a classroom culture that is culturally responsive to my students’ needs.
My students don’t just need a teacher who knows how to read and write—they need a teacher who can strategically raise crucial key points allowing them to better understand their community and the world around them. This type of structure reflects the approach most Drew professors and campus partners take with Drew students.
How did having TFA teachers as a student help you lead a TFA classroom?
I moved to the United States from Aguada, Puerto Rico, in 6th grade. My school performed poorly on state tests and grade promotion; the majority of the school was behind on reading-level and suffered from low academic and social growth. When I was in 8th grade they added many teachers from TFA.
The TFA teachers had an increased interest in the whole student, not just academic performance. Before, students like me were automatically thought to have some learning disability or learning barrier that prevented us from getting a passing test score.
My TFA teachers knew it was just as important to focus not just on the academic side of things but also on the students’ personal lives. That was something that really stuck with me, and I take that into my own teaching practices—focus on the whole student, not just their academic performance.
What are your post-TFA goals?
I will continue to be a TFA corp member until 2021. After that, I hope to officially obtain my teaching certificate for the city of New York and continue to teach at the middle school level with hopes of starting a masters program on educational sociology.
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