While we were preparing for the end of our summer program, we got to look back in time with Darny Mao. Darny is a Breakthrough Providence student alum, where she attended our middle school program from Summer 2008 – May 2010. She spoke about how she knew BTP was her next step early on as a sixth grader and how it led to her goal of coming back to teach. She said her “BTP teachers were there for [her] and encouraged [her] to go out of [her] comfort zone” which inspired her to become a Teaching Fellow.
However, before Darny could become a Teaching Fellow, she went through as many leadership positions as she could. She was a part of BTP’s first 9th Grade Fellows class where she learned about her leadership style and how to transition that knowledge into teaching. She then volunteered with us for a couple summers before finally becoming a Teaching Fellow in the summer of 2015. She said there were two main reasons she wanted to come back and teach: planning and impact.
She talked about how “as a student [she] saw all the [events]”, then when she became a volunteer she “helped with set-up of those [events] but not the planning.” She knew she “would be able to plan things out for the kids and see it through.” Seeing how everything was planned out and executed, she wanted special events to be better. She wanted to “give students more of an experience at btp and have fun with it.” Her passion to give our students a great experience pushed her to be even better her second summer. Leading to her desire to impact her students in a similar way her teachers supported and inspired her.
Darny talked about how, before Breakthrough, she would’ve never participated in an activity like talent show. “It was a key moment” that she talks about to this day. She felt that “it was [her] space and would not have done it without [her] advisor Britta.” Being one of her favorite memories from her time as a student, she was excited that it maintained its impact once she was a Teaching Fellow. She knew she wanted to recreate that support and pushed her students to participate in the talent show as well. She mentioned that once a person got out of their comfort zone, it “unleashes more potential.”
When asked about her most rewarding experience as a Teaching Fellow she thought about one student in particular. This student reminded her of her first time teaching in High School and the emotions she had felt. Nervous and self-conscious, in addition to being the youngest teacher on staff. She spoke about how she worked with him all summer, as his advisor, to build each others confidence. She would tell him about how her story of being nervous and he would share back. This allowed them to build a relationship in which they trusted and supported each other. Due to this, they were able to make tremendous progress in just one summer! This student went on to become a 9th Grade Fellow himself and is now a two-time volunteer.
When asked about her most challenging experience as a Teaching Fellow she discussed working with different personalities, specifically in the realm of team teaching. She said her team teachers (TTs) were wonderful but she felt there was an imbalance in their power dynamic. The challenges she faced were different between summers, but she reflected on one summer in particular where she felt she dominated the classroom. She spoke about how they worked it out towards the end of the summer in which she stepped back more in the instruction. What helped her through this challenge was “always remember[ing] that it’s not just my classroom but ours.” When she returned for her next summer she started delegating more and felt the imbalance in power and presence even out.
As Darny reflects on the past, we begin to discuss her future. Darny graduated from Providence College this past May and will be beginning her first year as a professional classroom teacher at Highlander Charter School this upcoming school year. When asked if there were any aspects of being a Teaching Fellow at BTP that influence her teaching philosophy she discussed three critical components. She began with “trying to [incorporate] social justice topics into word problems, in order to expose [students] to those terms and potentially talk about those issues.” She wants to make it a point to make scenarios in math that relate back to the real world so students are able to see their learning go beyond the school walls. This is something BTP does by infusing Gentrification and the School-to-Prison Pipeline into both the English and Math classes.
She then discussed her interaction with students. She said she learned how to problem solve with and not for the students. Our teachers are trained on how to do this because of how we approach student support through restorative justice practices. Darny embraced this and continues to do so because she wants to “make sure they have a voice in what is happening, to explain themselves…I remember doing that before and will definitely use that at Highlander.”
Her last point was around the environment and community she will build. She reflected on how she felt as a student and the space BTP afforded her to be herself and take positive risks. As a Teaching Fellow, she cultivated this and wanted to afford the students the same, if not better, experience. She spoke “not only about a safe space, but also a brave space” because their meanings are not necessarily the same. Darny sums this up but saying it is “not just [about] encouraging people to use their voice, but [to] also take the risk of their using their voice.”
As we wrap up, we look towards the far future for Darny. We asked her what she hopes to have achieved in her career in the next few years. She discussed three major achievements she aspires to. She wants to learn how to better differentiate her instruction for students she has not yet worked with. She says all students “have different needs with different ways of intaking information and knowledge” for educators to work with. It is important for her to get information to a student in a way they will effectively understand and apply the content. She also referred back to this idea of “our classroom” where her students are involved and can take ownership of their classroom experience. In order to accomplish these goals, Darny knows she needs to be prepared. This will come with more experience, and particularly experience with students with different personalities than she has encountered.
To end the interview we asked Darny If there was one thing she wished people knew about Breakthrough Providence and what it would be.
“Its inspiring. Student and staff are inspiring each other, someway somehow. [The] crazy thing is a student can inspire you and they won’t even know it, unless you tell them. A teacher can inspire a student, [that’s why] I remember my teacher.”
We cannot express our appreciation for Darny and the hard work she put in for our students. We know she will continue to do amazing work as an educator and we hope she inspires others to do the same. As always BTP will be home for our alum and know that Darny has cemented herself as a great community leader. If you’d like to send any kind words to Darny let us know and we’ll make sure she gets it.