Uncommon Schools training college students to become Brooklyn teachers

uncommon schools principal
Quinterrence Bell, principal of the Uncommon Schools Excellence Boys Middle Academy, welcomed college students who wanted to train as teachers this summer.
Photo courtesy of Uncommon Schools

More than a decade before he became principal of a high-performing middle school in Brooklyn, Quinterrence Bell was a fresh-faced college student who just completed his junior year at Morehouse College and found himself in front of a classroom for the first time.

It was his first taste of teaching and he fell in love with it.

“It was a real life experience of what it is to be a teacher, meaning that I owned the instruction,” he said. “It involved a lot of feedback, coaching and direct mentorship. Every day there was a feedback session, talking about what went well, what didn’t go well with the lesson.”

As the principal of Uncommon Schools Excellence Boys Middle Academy, Bell jumped at the opportunity to work this summer with a crop of rising college seniors who traveled from across the U.S. to various Uncommon schools in Brooklyn to try out teaching.

“For me, it’s about giving back,” said Bell, who grew up in Macon, Ga. He wants the college students to have a similar experience to his and to say “yes” to teaching for the same reasons he said “yes.”

The Summer Teaching Fellows, now over a decade old, brought nearly 100 college students this summer to Brooklyn and other regions where Uncommon also operates public charter schools.

The college students spend the summer in classrooms under the tutelage of experienced educators like Bell, learning the art of teaching, receiving coaching and mentorship and discovering whether a career in education is in their future. The students are Uncommon students whose families have signed them up for free summer experience of an extra challenge in math and English, plus arts and crafts and engaging activities.

In a tight labor market for teachers, the Summer Teaching Fellows program has become a major pipeline of new educators for Uncommon. The vast majority of participants are students of color, allowing Uncommon to maintain a diverse teaching staff that benefits the students. Teachers of color make up more than 60% of Uncommon’s teaching staff in Brooklyn, reflecting the organization-wide commitment to increasing the percentage of teachers and leaders of color in its schools. Most of this summer’s Teaching Fellows will head back to college with a job offer from Uncommon to come back and teach full time when they graduate in 2024. 

Some of the students who return to the classroom are graduates of Uncommon schools.

Katelyn Dwarica, who attends Lincoln University of Pennsylvania – a Historically Black University in Oxford, Penn. – graduated from Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School in 2020. She originally wanted to major in political science. But she switched her major to history, and pan-Africana studies with a minor in physics.

“Learning history, I was just like, ‘I need other people to know this.’ And then that’s where the teaching came in,” she said. “The history there is different from the history that you learn in school. It’s not purely about white people, and how white people made America great, but it’s more on African Americans and Africa.”

uncommon schools students
Uncommon Schools graduate Katelyn Dwarica was inspired to teach after changing her major to history. Photo courtesy of Uncommon Schools

Though history is her passion, Dwarica is teaching Algebra to rising ninth graders and said she would like to return as a math teacher next year after she graduates from college.

“I didn’t even fancy math in high school,” she said. “It’s the little girl joy in me being able to understand math and then teach it and see them understand it. I enjoy it so much. I even find myself doing the little tests to see if I understand it. So when they asked me a question, it’s like okay, I still got it.”

Tiara Gilman, who attends Buffalo State University, also graduated from Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School in 2020. She is teaching English Language Arts to seventh graders.

“Growing up, I had trouble reading especially in kindergarten, having difficulties sounding out words, and just not comprehending the words,” Gilman said. “With my mom’s support and tenacity, I developed a love for reading, going to Barnes and Nobles, getting books, loving the smell of a new fresh book.”

When she becomes a teacher after she graduates from college, Gilman said she wants to share her passion for reading with her students.

“As a person who is educated, but who has struggled with reading, I can help them to understand reading and writing is important,” she said. “Just to understand that they can comprehend the text, but also that reading and writing is essential in life and to make you a better leader and give you a better understanding about the world around you.”

Gilman said she was inspired to become a teacher by her own teacher at Uncommon, Mary Kane Pope, who spent several years as her English Language Arts teacher from middle school through high school.

“I’m going to be just like her but in my own snazzy way,” Gilman said.

Gilman said she hopes to one day become the chancellor of New York City Public Schools. But she knows she first must get her start as a teacher and hopes to be offered a position at Uncommon, where she is familiar with the style of instruction having been a student for so many years.

“I feel like it’s best to always start where you came from, and Uncommon is the best for me because it made me who I am today,” she said. “I know how to do this. And I honestly see the positive impact.”

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