When Jakeim Matthews saw “Foundations of Education” on his schedule his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School (JFK), he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
“It was actually just given to me,” he explains, “but as I was taking the course, I just started liking it and engaging in it more.”
The course was taught by educator Scarlet Cornelius, and it was part of the KIPP New Orleans Alumni Teaching Force Program, through which KIPP New Orleans Schools upperclassmen and alumni prepare to be public school teachers. In addition to their high school education class, they student-teach at local elementary schools, and continue to student-teach in the summers while they’re at college as well. If they complete the program, they’re guaranteed a role in a KIPP New Orleans school once they graduate from college.
Matthews started off assisting in a fifth-grade English class, working one-on-one with students who weren’t yet on a fifth grade reading level. He helped them sound out words and make it through their reading assignments. Sometimes, he noticed his students were discouraged, so he also tried to offer encouragement and motivation.
“So I was just helping them pronounce words,” he explains. “I was just saying, ‘you can’t worry about anybody else, you just have to focus on the work, to practice.’ I’d encourage them to practice, and read more–stuff like that.”
Matthews tries to be himself in the classroom. “Personality wise, I don’t know if being funny is a good personality for teaching, but that’s just my personality, period. I’m funny. I work hard. I’m relatable. I talk to you with respect; I’m respectful,” he says.
He thinks that this spirit is important in the classroom.
“I know normally, kids don’t want to come to class, but I feel like in order for them to want to come to class, it should be fun,” he explains. “It should be a good environment for learning.”
He tries to grow as an educator alongside his students.
“I really like teaching,” he explains. “I’m still trying to try to perfect my craft.”
The experience as part of the KIPP New Orleans Alumni Teaching Force has changed his life’s path. He began college as a psychology major, but loved his summer student teaching so much that he became an elementary education major.
He knows he’ll be a role model to the students he teaches. He sees it when he watches his classmates from JFK teaching at KIPP Morial. He’s noticed how sharing aspects of identity with students has helped him connect with students. (The federal SEED grant NSNO recently earned, which helps fund programs like the Alumni Teaching Force, is focused on bringing more teachers of color to New Orleans Schools in part because of these types of connections, which we know can impact students’ experience and performance.)
“I think we can relate more, coming from where they came from and stuff like that,” says Matthews. “They might be more open to listen, because they can relate to us more…all of us coming back to teach is helping–it’s just good for the students.”
Sahaan Bickham is another member of the KIPP Alumni Teaching Force who graduated from JFK the year after Matthews. Like Matthews, he also believes in the power of New Orleans’ students returning to teach in their former schools.
“They know what really happens in New Orleans,” he says, “They can be like a guide to them. They may be able to connect with the kids and make them more comfortable…I can be a role model to them.”
Bickham attends Texas Southern University. Like Matthews, he taught elementary students at KIPP Morial over the summer. He also taught at Hynes Charter School UNO every Tuesday and Thursday throughout his senior year. He appreciated how he and his students were able to connect and adapt together.
“I learned that each student is different, and you’ve got to adjust every time you teach,” he explains. “It was really eye opening to see the different ways that you can teach a student, to connect with them, to help them be comfortable in an environment.”
Right now, Bickham is majoring in Civil Engineering. He’s not sure that he’ll become a teacher, but he’s considering minoring in it. He knows he wants to make an impact on the community and he’s glad he’s part of the KIPP New Orleans Alumni Teaching Force.
“It’s a good opportunity to mentor the youth and give the experience of that fair education that everyone should have,” Bickham says. “It makes you aware of the different things that go on in the school system. And I think you can be part of the change.”
Matthews, too, is drawn to be a part of the change. He draws inspiration from his own journey. He faced many challenges growing up, and he’s driven by the process of accomplishing his dreams. One of them, for him, is teaching. Someday, he knows, his students will be where he is–graduated from high school, onto college, and soon after, their careers.
“To make it to college and I’m pursuing a dream?” he says. “That’s just the motivation right there.”