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Vassar Students Gain Valuable Experience Helping Teachers

Riley Doherty ’21 spent the Fall Semester in Ireland gathering information for her thesis on Irish history. But for several hours each week, Doherty took a break from her thesis research to help Poughkeepsie High School social studies teacher Shanna Andrawis work with her students.

Riley Doherty ’21, pictured here helping Poughkeepsie High School social studies teacher Shanna Andrawis conduct a class, was one of 15 Vassar student who assisted teachers across the country.Photo: Courtesy of Shanna Andrawis

Doherty, a history major from Baltimore MD, was one of 15 Vassar students who took part in a collaborative teaching program developed by Associate Professor and Chair of Education Maria Hantzopoulos. Drawing on the resources of Vassar’s Office of Community-Engaged Learning, Hantzopoulos matched the students with teachers, most of them Vassar alumnae/i, at public schools throughout the country. The Vassar collaborators helped the teachers with lesson planning, engaged in class discussions, and worked with the students on homework assignments.

Hantzopoulos said her initiative was designed to enable the Vassar students enrolled in education classes to gain on-the-job experience by working with teachers across the country who were coping with the challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have seen the large disparities across race and class in schools,” Hantzopoulos said. “Many public schools have been hit hard by the pandemic, so we asked, ‘How can the Education Department acknowledge and address this and collaborate and support some of these teachers?’”

Andrawis, who earned her education certification at Vassar, said Doherty was a welcome addition to her classes, which she taught remotely. “In some ways, this was like being a new teacher again, doing things I’d never done before,” she said. “I’d run ideas past Riley and get her feedback as a student. There was a lot of experimentation, and having her with me helped me a lot. And it was good for my students to have someone closer to their age working with them. I think it’s important for students in an urban school district to have a relationship with a liberal arts college like Vassar.”

Doherty said she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “I’d meet with Shanna every Wednesday and we’d talk for an hour about what lessons were planned and what I’d be observing, and on Thursdays and Fridays, I’d log on to her classes,” she said. “Shanna was dealing with a lot of challenges teaching online, and I was able to observe the ways she helped the students when they missed assignments. She offered them a lot of flexibility, which they really needed.”

Alden Pierson Smela ’22, a mathematics major from Minneapolis who plans to become a high school math teacher, said the experience would help him look for ways of teaching material in non-traditional ways. He said the mathematics class he helped teach with Daniel August ’13 at Essex Street Academy in Manhattan was multidisciplinary. “It wasn’t just about math but about using math to study democracy,” Pierson Smela said, “and that will be very useful to me. It really helped to inform my own teaching practices in the future.”

Another student collaborator, Faith Northern ’22, said she was received warmly by both the teachers and the students at James Baldwin School in New York City. Northern, a biochemistry major from Irvington, NJ, monitored English, math, and social studies classes, and she created a lesson plan for some students’ final project in the math class. “My ideas and perspectives were welcomed with open arms,” said Northern. “They often asked my opinion on things, since I am closer in age to the student they are teaching.

“I was also touched by how well I was received by the students,” Northern continued. “They always participated to the best of their ability, and I received several notes of thanks for taking my time with them and always leaving them a space to speak.” 

James Baldwin School math teacher Abigail Kirchman said Northern “went above and beyond” to help her and her students. “Faith brought positive energy, strong ideas, and commitment to supporting our students,” Kirchman wrote in an evaluation document submitted to the Office of Community-Engaged Learning.

Hantzopoulos said she was glad Vassar had been able to provide such assistance to schools that needed the help. “All of the teachers we talked to said this effort had given them a huge boost,” she said. “The fault lines in our public schools are deepening; many schools don’t have the resources, especially those in rural areas. This project has been quite rewarding, and we look forward to doing it again in the Spring Semester.”