Meet Our Teaching Fellows

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Meet Our Teaching Fellows

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Growing up in Virginia, Dashell went to the library with his mom in the summer while his friends were swimming.  “Every week we chose twenty books and read them before we could do anything else.  My mom was tough, but she gave me a great respect for education. She left Ghana when she was 20 so she could give her children an excellent education,” Dashell remembers.

Excellence is what his mom got. In the seventh grade, Dashell received a prestigious Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, which provided him the opportunity to attend high-performing middle and high schools and, eventually, Yale University.

Motivated by his love for education and witnessing the economic disparity on the Yale campus, Dashell began searching for opportunities in the education field. “Breakthrough is the only organization I found that provides college students with hands-on teaching experience.  Not just tutoring, but learning classroom management in the trenches and writing lesson plans that reach students with varying ability levels.” 

Mr. Dash, as his fifth grade writing students called him, learned that successful teachers find creative solutions. “One of my students is a very capable kid, but found a way to talk to anyone who sat next to him. The first week I moved his seat every day.”  In search of a successful strategy, Dashell created a tally system that rewarded the student for positive behavior. Dashell soon saw him become more engaged in class and successful with his homework.

Dashell recently returned for his second summer as a Teaching Fellow at Breakthrough. He calls the experience fulfilling and all-encompassing.  “I only slept three hours last night; we work really hard. But it’s worth it. On the weekends when we get together, we’re talking about our students and new ways to reach them.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  To see some of my students go from only being able to write two sentences to three pages in just three weeks is absolutely inspiring.”

Dashell recently graduated from Yale with a degree in Political Science and is working as an Associate at FSG, a mission-driven consulting firm.


Having tutored previously, Val came to Breakthrough confident in her ability to break down complex topics. “It was a big shock to learn how difficult classroom teaching really is,” she said.  “But I wanted to improve and worked twelve hour days that summer, and at the end I was amazed at how much I learned.”

Throughout two summers at Breakthrough, the teaching residency offered Val a supportive and encouraging place to learn how to effectively balance being a subject matter expert, approachable listener, disciplinarian, and time manager. Her Instructional Coach is “positive and passionate without being overwhelming. She is helping me to become the teacher I am meant to be and embraces my individuality.”

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in English, Val is passionate about reading, devouring everything from the text on her cereal box in the morning to classic Russian novels. As she led her students through discussions of books like Maniac Magee and The Giver, she sought to transmit key skills while also conveying a love of literature.

Val believes her biggest accomplishments have been with students with discipline struggles. “I can relate to them because I had a difficult time in my first two years of high school. It means a lot to know that I can show them that they aren’t alone in the way they feel – because I felt that way too. When I believe in them they start believing in themselves.”

Val also connected with students through her love for art. Whether teaching them to paint, or preparing her breakdancing class for a Celebration performance, she broadened their horizons and contributed to the vibrancy of the Breakthrough community.

“Before Breakthrough, I had never wanted to work so hard at something in my life,” Val says. “Breakthrough inspired me to work harder than ever and to inspire others to do the same.”

Val recently launched her professional teaching career at an independent school in the East Bay.


Michael had spent past summers doing an array of jobs and internships. None was especially challenging or fulfilling. Michael remembered volunteering as a Breakthrough tutor while in the eighth grade at San Francisco Day School, and how much he loved being around kids. He had also interned as an assistant high school English teacher while studying abroad in Rome – an experience that highlighted teaching’s huge challenges, and great rewards.

He was accepted as a Teaching Fellow at Breakthrough in summer 2010, and quickly realized that the coming summer would be very different. “I never worked that hard in my life for an eight-week period,” he says.

As a sixth grade literature TF, Michael worked to help students delve deeply into the texts they read. They explored the connections between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and discussed the application of the German term schadenfreude to a scene in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. He thought up fun, creative ideas – such as dressing up as a sheriff and challenging students to “rob each other’s vocabulary banks.” And he applied his sense of humor and talent for impersonations to keep his students and fellow teachers laughing.

The summer was challenging – managing time, coping with stress, and constantly trying to grow. Yet Michael handled it well. “Michael is a deeply reflective and creative teacher with a natural instinct for connecting with students,” his Instructional Coach wrote. “Rather than feel defeated by the constant stream of feedback the program delivers, Michael incorporated suggestions and ran with them, and grew immensely as a result.”

“Even though it was only eight weeks, I know my teaching skills improved a ton,” Michael says. “From where I started to where I ended, it was a completely different person.”

Michael graduated several years ago from Emory University in Atlanta and is currently teaching history at his alma mater, San Francisco Day School. He also serves on Breakthrough's Advisory Board and, in summer 2016, served as an Instructional Coach.

 “I have been extraordinarily lucky to have attended private school my whole life; I have not had to deal with most of the academic disadvantages many students in the United States face today,” Michael wrote. “However, what I can do is what all of my favorite teachers have done in the past – to inspire.”


Nerissa has deeply personal reasons for wanting her students to succeed. She attended Breakthrough Miami as a middle school student and later spent three summers, during high school and college, as a Teaching Fellow there. “I really wanted to give back to the community that helped me when I was a kid,” she says.

A few years ago, wanting to experience something new, Nerissa switched coasts. She taught writing at Breakthrough San Francisco, helping her students develop the strong composition skills essential for future academic success. Her sixth graders worked to improve their organization, word choice, use of supporting evidence, and ability to engage the reader.

Wanting to keep them engaged, Nerissa designed creative lessons and made time for her students after class, checking in constantly about their academic progress and personal well-being. At the same time, she set clear expectations and managed her classroom confidently. Her students responded, working hard and substantially increasing their scores on an end-of-summer writing assessment. “I definitely learned the importance of good modeling and repetition,” she reflects.

A recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, Nerissa is pursuing an education career while staying connected to her Breakthrough students. “I’m living proof that a high potential, underprivileged child of color has a chance to go far in life,” Nerissa says. “I know that Breakthrough students are capable of so much, but I also know that they may not realize how smart they are. They need someone to believe in them. I want them to graduate from high school and to go on to college feeling like they are supposed to be there.”


As a seventh grader, Cal had to lead a class activity for a history assignment. “I remember the thrill of being in front of the classroom,” he says. “It felt very natural.”

He continued to seek out that feeling. At St. Ignatius College Prep, he tutored middle school students and coached a basketball team. At UC Berkeley, he served as a tutor and workshop leader at the writing center. The summer after his junior year there, Cal joined Breakthrough as a Teaching Fellow.

“It was beyond anything I expected – the amount of work involved,” he recalls. “But it was made worthwhile by interactions with the kids everyday. Also the community that the directors fostered among us as teachers – we really worked as a team.” The culture of hard work and high expectations was hard to resist. Cal taught writing that summer and was gratified by the progress his students made in a short period of time. “The improvement we saw in six weeks was impressive – the way the students were able to structure their paragraphs and build a coherent argument.” 

After graduating from college the following spring, Cal returned to the writing department at Breakthrough, and then completed the Match Teacher Residency, a rigorous teacher preparation program in Boston. He currently teaches history and Writing for College at Eastside College Preparatory School, a high-performing 6-12 school in East Palo Alto that sends 100% of graduates to four-year colleges.

Being a professional teacher, Cal says, is even harder than the residency at Breakthrough. That said, he feels his two summers here were time well spent. “The volume and intensity and responsibility of work that I was given – it’s bar none the best preparation I’ve heard of.” In addition to the instructional skills he learned, Breakthrough offered a model of what a career in education can be. “Breakthrough was the single most empowering experience of my life,” he wrote after his first summer in the classroom. “It taught me not just what it means to work hard, but to work with a sense of purpose and impact. Every minute I spent with the program, I felt like I was actually influencing the world around me, my coworkers, and my students. More than anything, it taught me the joy of watching children grow and learn, a joy that I'm sure to carry with me.”

He plans to remain in the classroom for the foreseeable future. He served as a Breakthrough Instructional Coach in summer 2014 and may someday may want to move into teacher training, inspired by the many excellent instructional coaches he’s had.