Inspiring the Future Educators of McDonogh 35 Senior High School and Growing the Teacher Workforce of Tomorrow
Dr. Juaquana Lewis always looked up to educators–like her mother, who was a teacher, and her teachers at McDonogh 35 Senior High School–so she decided to become one.
“I saw them–how they carried themselves, how they spoke, how they treated people, how they impacted the community. And that made me say, ‘I want to be a teacher,'” she says.
She graduated from 35 in 1995, and today, she is InspireNOLA Charter Schools’ – which operates McDonogh 35 – Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction. She’s working with two colleagues, Joy Garrison and Shauntrell DeMesme–both also 35 alums–to create a program that will inspire students to pursue a path in education, just as she did. Their efforts are a part of a quickly expanding movement of “Grow Your Own” education programs in New Orleans, which aim to prepare local high school students and school staff (like paraprofessionals) to become classroom teachers.
Lewis knows that today, young people are looking up to her, just as she once looked up to her teachers at 35.
“When we think of anyone that’s successful, it all starts from a teacher–whether it’s from your home with your parents, or in a formal educational setting. And so that’s pretty much how I got started in education, why I’m trying to get others to do the same,” she explains.
DeMesme will be leading the program at 35. She has connected with educators at other schools and networks that already have such programs, like KIPP New Orleans Schools and Warren Easton Charter High School. By bringing together their experiences and advice, her own expertise, and the unique culture and community of 35, she’s developed a pilot program that she’s hopeful about.
Next year, she’ll teach 15 juniors and seniors in an education course. These same students will get the chance to test out their skills as student teachers and tutors at Capdau STEAM School, which, like 35, is part of the InspireNOLA Network. They’ll also serve as summer tutors–which will be a paid position. DeMesme says this has been a powerful recruiting tactic.
“When I start telling them, ‘you know, you can actually be compensated to tutor and to do some summer programs, they light up,’” she explains.
DeMesme has connected with students who have expressed interest in education as well as those who aren’t as sure. When she was a high school student, she also wasn’t initially sure of a career in education, but her grandmother–a lifelong educator and huge influence in her life–inspired her to pursue it. Now, she’s passing that inspiration on.
“Even the ones who tell me, ‘I’m thinking about psychology, or I’m thinking about social work.’ I’m actually targeting those students, too, because that is in the line of education as well,” she explains.
While it will still be a few years before students from this pilot graduate from college, Garrison looks forward to the day they do. As the Senior Talent Manager at InspireNOLA, she’s hoping she’ll have the opportunity to hire them. Schools across the country are facing tough hiring seasons year after year, as fewer people go into the field of education. She believes that this program is part of the solution.
“Take a look at the talent crisis that we currently have. Education has not been glamorized. It is a profession that people are currently running from. Every news cycle, we see it,” she explains. “We can really just start to change the tide, piece by piece.”
But hiring 35 alums, for Garrison, DeMesme, and Lewis, isn’t just about finding great teachers and filling open roles. It’s about continuing the legacy of generations of 35 graduates coming back to teach at their school, and about expanding opportunities for today’s students.
“I think that’s the importance of this program,” says Garrison, “allowing our students to understand that they’ll represent a mirror for their students, like ‘hey, you may look like me, you may not have the same experiences. But we may have walked in some of the same shoes or on the same roads.’”
That modeling isn’t just about identity.
“Just because the students look like us, doesn’t mean we can automatically relate to them. That’s very important,” Dr. Lewis says.
Instead, she says, what matters is what she’s teaching, how she’s teaching, and the relationships she builds, whether they’re across lines of difference or not.
“It’s more important what we put before them to teach them,” she says. “It’s about how important that teacher is not just to their students, but to their students’ families, even their parents and grandparents, to their future families.”
Lewis, DeMesme, and Garrison know that launching a new program will be challenging, but they’re ready for the hard work. They’re motivated by their love for their students and for the high school that shaped them.
“It is simply the legacy that we owe this institution, what we pulled from it. That is the reason why we continue to do the hard work. And it is hard–but we know that we owe the institution so much that poured into us,” says Garrison.
“It’s about the history and legacy of 35,” Dr. Lewis adds. “It just wasn’t about the content of the education. It was also the forming and creating of who we were meant to be.”
If you’d like to learn more about the “Grow Your Own” programs supported by the Allstate Sugar Bowl Teacher Community, you can read more pieces like this one here.