Profiles in Teaching

 

Teachers
From left: Chinmay, Rachel, Maya, Chandler, Mary Alice, Jenny Kate, Matthew, Buka

Two weeks have passed since I left the Delta, and I can’t stop thinking about the incredible people I met there. In previous blog posts, you’ve encountered stories of our students, but you’ve never been told much about their teachers. Now that I find myself missing these coworkers-turned-friends, allow me to share something new: profiles in teaching. Meet the 2015 teachers of the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Buka Okoye

Buka
Hometown: Clinton, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 8th grade reading
Why I like him: Buka doesn’t shy away from discussing the big issues. He cares deeply about the State of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi. I loved to hear his hearty laugh and to witness the level of the sportsmanship he put into every lunchtime basketball game.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Personality isn’t crucial.”
In 25 years, I can see him as: an outspoken, vote-whipping leader of the Senate of Mississippi.
Thank you for: the wide-ranging late-night conversations I will always remember.

Chandler Phillips

IMG_4852
Hometown: Lawrenceville, GA
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th and 9th grade rhetoric
Why I like her: Chandler’s emotional IQ is off the charts. She built heartfelt relationships with students this summer, investing enough time with them to really get to know them as people. More than this, she has deep faith: in God and in people. She never gave up on a single student this summer, and fought hard for each of them to enjoy opportunities through the Freedom Project.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “The things that are happening here are happening everywhere.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: a nationally recognized poet, activist, and civil rights leader.
Thank you for: adding a new name to my list of heroes (Ella Baker).

Chinmay Pandit

IMG_5211
Hometown: Fort Collins, Colorado
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade math
Why I like him: Chinmay is creative. He would write these incredible word problems (“Mr. Pandit LOVES chicken wings…”) that resonated with students’ actual experiences and connected with content from the reading and rhetoric classes. He made math fun, a feat many (myself included) could never hope to accomplish.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Happy Birthday, Matt!” (at precisely 12:00am on my birthday)
In 25 years, I can see him as: a wildly successful venture capitalist and philanthropist.
Thank you for: bringing out my silly side as a teacher, roommate, and friend.



Jenny Kate Smith
Jenny Kate

Hometown: Tupelo, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 9th grade math
Why I like her: Jenny Kate is genuine. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who are as kind or considerate as she is. Jenny Kate had this way of connecting with some of the quietest students and making them feel valued and loved. On top of all this, she’s smart as can be and knows how to manage her classroom with ease and a smile.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “They’re showing classic middle school mean girl behavior.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the beloved elementary school teacher who makes even the most difficult students’ hearts melt.
Thank you for: giving the best hugs at all the right times.

Mary Alice Koon

Mary Alice
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
College: Pomona College
Taught: 8th grade math
Why I like her: Mary Alice is understanding. Maybe it’s the camp counselor in her, maybe it’s just in her nature, but she is practiced in the challenging task of putting herself in someone else’s shoes. She never accepts behavior at face value. Instead, she tries to figure out the root cause.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “I take away a lot of hope from the Freedom Project, because here I see kids working really hard… I love the spark in their eyes when they get something for the first time or when they raise their hand because they know the answer.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: editor of The Oxford American.
Thank you for: always being up for another adventure.

Maya Durvasula

Maya
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade reading
Why I like her: Maya is driven. In her second week of teaching, Maya instituted daily quizzes, demanding that her 7th graders would complete what many college students neglect: the reading. Students who failed the quizzes had to serve a “Reading Lunch,” where they would complete 50 minutes of silent reading instead of playing outside with their friends. Maya also showed her drive in her own reading habits, devouring books and articles about the Delta long before we arrived there.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “It’s so valuable to be able to put faces to all of the things I might look at from a mostly academic perspective all of the time.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the next Jeff Sachs.
Thank you for: keeping me sane (with your advice) and stimulated (with a steady stream of ideas and articles).

Rachel Hettleman

Rachel
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
College: New York University
Taught: 9th grade reading
Why I like her: Rachel just seems to have public service in her blood. Her grandfather was active in the civil rights movement and her mother serves in the Maryland state legislature. Rachel took a gap year to work in New York’s schools with City Year, and in a nonchalant sort of way, she always looks for a new way to serve: painting a College Wall for the Freedom Project, cleaning up spaces, and making vocabulary lists to help students learn better. She’s such a giving person.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “Good morning, Mr. King!” (her greeting, without fail, every single morning this summer).
In 25 years, I can see her as: Chief Design Officer of a teaching supply company (her posters are that good).
Thank you for: unflagging faith in me as a teacher, unbelievable fun with me as a friend.

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