Throughout her time as a Hollins undergraduate, Te’ya Mitchell ’21 has been guided by a passion for transformative change. She launches a new chapter in that commitment this July when she embarks on a four-year fellowship with Urban Teachers, an inclusive organization whose mission is preparing educators to improve the lives of children in urban schools. Over the past ten years, Urban Teachers has brought more than 1,500 aspiring, culturally competent teachers to three of the nation’s cities with the highest need: Baltimore, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
“You get to work closely with a teacher as well as a whole team of mentors that follows you throughout your four years with the program,” Mitchell, who will teach in D.C., explains. “The goal is not only to help you become a good teacher in the classroom, but also become invested in students’ lives outside the classroom.”
The senior from Little Rock, Arkansas, began her Hollins journey considering three possible majors, ultimately deciding that gender and women’s studies would be the best route to realizing her goal of addressing institutions that disadvantage marginalized people (she is also minoring in English and social justice). “What stands out about gender and women’s studies is it concerns itself with your perspectives, your lived experiences, where you come from, and how all of that shapes your view of the world. The skills I learned in this major – research skills, conversation skills, critical thinking skills – are skills I’ll be able to take with me for the rest of my life. Also, I wanted to study racism and classism and the gender and women’s studies program focuses on these issues.”
“Te’ya is a brilliant and tenacious advocate for educational equity and opportunity,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies Courtney Chenette. For an assignment in Chenette’s Gender and the Law course last year, Mitchell researched and proposed a future application of the law and theory introduced in the class. “Te’ya wrote of her aspiration to apply to Urban Teachers, noting that ‘education is about people…and they acknowledge that structural racism and inequality have kept generations of urban children from receiving the education they deserve.’”
Mitchell admires Urban Teachers for its willingness to challenge those power structures and its acknowledgment that racism and classism have an impact on education. “Urban Teachers is going into schools and instead of just fitting into the existing system, they are looking at the ways that system can be changed to make it more sustainable and a really empowering place for students. When there’s a teacher who is an authority figure and a student at the bottom, you are just telling stuff to them. Education should be about building connections with students based on their backgrounds, their culture, and their home life, and teach them that way rather than from a perspective of, ‘I’m so far removed from you that we can’t communicate.’”
One example of Urban Teachers’ tangible success in making a difference that Mitchell cites is their efforts to further initiatives that have been put into place over the past five to ten years “to deal with conflict in the classroom in ways that make sure students have methods to calm themselves rather than punishing them with suspensions.”
Mitchell believes there is an even greater sense of urgency to meet students’ needs in light of the impact of COVID-19. “Even before the pandemic, there was a huge gap in technology. Now, with online learning, a lot of students just don’t have access to computers or the computers they have are broken. The pandemic has definitely created a barrier between class space and home space, and there’s a race gap and a wealth gap involved with that. Since we don’t know at what point we will go back to in-person learning, how do we help students who have things going on at home? How do we work with them instead of punishing them for not having the perfect home space or being the perfect student? They need to be seen as people and not as bad students.”
Urban Teachers is highly selective and acceptance involves a rigorous application procedure that requires essay writing, personal recommendations, and a lengthy interview process that includes an all-day session with teaching, group exercises, and individual interviews. Not only are prospective fellows seeking to work with the organization itself, they are also applying simultaneously to the master’s program in education at Johns Hopkins University. Fellows complete their master’s degrees during their first two years with Urban Teachers.
“I’m very excited about that,” Mitchell says, noting that she will pursue certificates in special education and in teaching English as a second language at JHU. After finishing her fellowship with Urban Teachers, she says her next stop will be law school to prepare for a career in either education law or family and children’s law.
Mitchell sees tremendous potential for how her studies at Hollins will intersect with the goals of Urban Teachers. “I think there are lot of overlaps between Urban Teachers and the gender and women’s studies program,” she explains. “Communication and a lot of other skills I have learned are directly transferable – they don’t have to be translated to fit into education because they are a natural part of education. At the same time, having a better understanding of power and privilege in this country will make me a better teacher and advocate for my students.”