While some Yalies cannot wait to leave New Haven for a high-powered position in a big city, others decide to stay closer to “home” after graduation while working toward for a career in education through the Yale Teacher Preparation Program.
Despite their diverse interests and backgrounds, Ralph Russo ’88 GRD ’91, Jenny Meyer ’03 and Mindi Englart GRD ’05 have one thing in common: all three Yale graduates have devoted themselves to educating New Haven’s youth. Although the three they have faced different kinds of challenges throughout their careers, they agreed that teaching high school is a fulfilling and enriching experience.
Russo said his lifelong love of learning and athletics influenced his decision to become a public school teacher.
“School and sports were always an important part of my life,” said Russo, who played varsity ice hockey during his undergraduate years at Yale. “I always loved the change of a season, the change of a school year, and I really thought that a teaching career would be the most fulfilling.”
After graduating with a B.A. in History, Russo spent a year and half playing on various minor-league ice hockey teams before returning to Yale to enroll in the Teacher Preparation Program.
His first teaching job after graduation was teaching at an alternative school program for at-risk youth in Stamford for a year, followed by two more years working in Stamford, Conn., public high schools. At the time, Russo said, he did not know whether he wished to pursue teaching as a lifelong career.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do it continuously, as a career, for the next 20 to 30 years,” Russo said.
Russo then turned from high school teaching to social work, tutoring adults through various social agencies for six years. In 2000, he received Connecticut’s Adult Basic Education Teacher of the Year Award.
But in 2001, when his state teaching certification was due for renewal, Russo decided to reapply for certification and to try teaching high school once more. That decision was the right one, he said.
“I love teaching in New Haven because there’s real diversity — sons and daughters of some Yale faculty, kids from international environments born in other countries and kids from all neighborhoods of New Haven, too,” he said. “It’s a great environment for kids to learn from each other as well and it’s a challenge for teachers.”
Russo now works at Wilbur Cross High School in East Rock, where he teaches three classes on world civilizations, two U.S. history courses and one independent study Advanced Placement comparative government class. He is also an adviser for the school’s Model United Nations club.
Unlike Russo, Meyer said she was always sure she wanted to devote herself to teaching. She said her lifelong goal to be a teacher led her to enroll in the Teacher Preparation Program as an undergraduate. During her senior year of college, Meyer had already started teaching at Career Vocational Magnet High School as part of her coursework. After graduation, she became a French teacher at Trumbull High School.
The educational disparities between Trumbull and New Haven are wide, Meyer said.
“Vast socioeconomic differences unfortunately dictate the academic and vocational opportunities that are open to students in these respective communities,” she said. “Trumbull is the more affluent, with a much higher population of college-bound pupils and a much higher degree of parental involvement. Students at Trumbull are vying for that big-name college bumper sticker, whereas for my New Haven students, making it to school was an achievement in and of itself.”
She said cultural differences made her work in New Haven especially demanding.
“The challenges I faced student teaching in New Haven did arise at a pedagogical level, but were also driven by a certain cultural illiteracy on my part, coming from such a different background,” Meyer said.
Though Meyers said she was unsure whether or not to leave New Haven for a more affluent school district, she ultimately decided Trumbull was a better environment in which to develop as a teacher.
“I love my job,” Meyer said. “I could see myself teaching high school for the rest of my life. It is such a fascinating, fulfilling and endlessly evolving profession.”
Englart graduated from the Yale Teacher Preparatory Program last spring while concurrently pursuing her master’s degree in Liberal Studies at Wesleyan University. She began teaching in New Haven four years ago at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School, where she teaches two creative writing classes, two English classes and a journalism class.
“I love working in an urban school,” she said. “The students … have so much potential and energy.”
But despite her love of and commitment to New Haven schools, Englart said, she is frustrated with national and state regulations on curriculum.
“The national and state pressures on teachers are enormous, prioritizing content over process,” she said. “But it backfires, because how can you teach content when kids haven’t ingrained the processes to really learn it?”
Englart said that her doubts about policy decisions have led her to start considering a managerial position for the future, but she plans to continue teaching in the short run.
Russo said the challenges he has faced are not caused by curriculum regulations, but are primarily a result of the students’ attitude towards the future.
“In general, with young people, the challenge is to get them to see beyond the now,” he said. “You try to get them to think about the consequences of their actions and teach them that hard work will pay off later on down the road.”