As a first-year at Wesleyan University, Eliza began working at the university radio station and soon became co-producer of a youth radio project. She trained kids from nine to fourteen as DJs and co-hosted their live weekly radio program. “It gave me time to understand that kids are brilliant,” she says. “If they have space to share and feel listened to, they make deep and meaningful observations about the world.”
A few years later, she applied to become a Teaching Fellow at Breakthrough because “this program offered serious professional training and was invested in equitable outcomes for students.” As soon as Eliza arrived for teacher training in summer 2014, she found that “all that was being shared felt urgently necessary. The Fellows were encouraged to share our own experiences as students, which made clear to me that building strong relationships among fellow teachers was important. A big takeaway was how collaborative the experience was.”
Eliza taught eighth grade writing, and she also designed a mixed-grade elective class that drew on her radio production skills, culminating with students creating and producing a podcast. Eliza was impressed by “how generous the students were. They were so gracious and flexible with these new teachers when they made mistakes. And the eighth graders brought so much mentorship to the younger students in the mixed-level electives.”
Having organized programs for the Outdoor Theme House at Wesleyan, Eliza was enlisted to lead an outdoor education overnight trip for Breakthrough students: “To take the bus and then hike out to the Presidio was like being in a transformed city, and the kids really came into themselves outside.”
Eliza went on to work in outdoor education for Slide Ranch and the Horizons program before being accepted to the M.A. in Education program at Stanford University, where, she notes, “ten of the sixty-six students there had previously worked in Breakthrough programs as Teaching Fellows.”
Today Eliza teaches humanities classes at Gateway High School, just up the street from Breakthrough, where she’s currently planning a unit that will get students out of the classroom to research city neighborhoods and their different patterns of migration.
Her experience at Breakthrough transformed her notion of what was most essential to good teaching: “At first I thought that if I put the curriculum across in the correct way and learned good strategies, I’d be a good teacher. But in the end it’s really about the relationship you have with students. When I taught eighth grade writing with my co-teacher, Miles, we each had to write a personal essay as a model for the students. He wrote a lovely piece about his grandmother, and the students responded to the way he was opening up to them, that vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable and open with students to build strong relationships.”