Meet Our Teaching Fellows
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“When I look back in ten years, I know Breakthrough will have added so much to my journey as an educator.”
“If you want to be a teacher, there’s really no better preparation you can get than Breakthrough.”
When Mele was a fourth grader, her mom became an elementary school teacher. Mele remembers getting to school early, when the halls were still empty, to lend a hand. But her own career path became clear only later, as a high school senior, when Obama put out a call in his State of the Union address for young people to enter the education field. Mele remembers excitedly discussing the speech with her mom. As a senior, she applied to Breakthrough’s summer teacher residency.
“Breakthrough seems like the perfect opportunity to hone the skills I’ve acquired over the past four years,” Mele wrote in her application. “It’s an opportunity to gain more experience with children and work with like-minded people. I think it’s wonderful that both teachers and students benefit, learn, and grow at Breakthrough, and I would love to be a part of that.”
Mele spent the summer of 2015 immersed in the experience. Two years later, she can’t forget the intensity of the work during that eight-week period — learning to craft lesson plans, manage a classroom, build relationships with students and family members, and so much more. She remembers the conversations about social justice with her colleagues and the ongoing feedback from her Instructional Coach. She remembers discovering how positively her students responded when she got to know them as individuals. And she remembers how much fun she had – greeting students with cheers first thing in the morning and dressing up in costumes at STEM Olympics – and the unique, supportive community that she is still connected to.
Mele subsequently spent two years as a Teacher Apprentice at Presidio Hill School, working with first and fourth graders. Now, she has her own class of first graders at Tom Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose – the same school where her mom used to teach. While it’s challenging work, Mele feels ready. “I feel so prepared, and it’s because of that summer. I have a strong foundation and I don’t feel overwhelmed. I’m still trying to get to know my students as human beings, teaching the whole child – even now I eat lunch with my kids and I try to talk with them about their personal interests and experiences. And I’m trying to teach with the same sense of accountability, holding myself to a high standard, just like at Breakthrough.”
“I still wear my Breakthrough T-shirt because I’m very proud of it,” she adds. “When I look back in ten years, I know Breakthrough will have added so much to my journey as an educator.”
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, and classroom 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 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 who experience behavioral challenges. “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.”
“I hold Breakthrough solely responsible for my choice to be a professional teacher,” he adds. “It was that first summer when I had the light bulb go off. I loved everything. I looked forward to planning my lessons, I looked forward to leading electives, I looked forward to eating and playing with my students on the yard.”
Michael graduated from Emory University in Atlanta several years ago. He subsequently taught history at his alma mater, SF Day School, and served as a Breakthrough Instructional Coach during the summers of 2016 and 2017. Michael served as Breakthrough’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction for three years before moving into his current role at Marin Country Day School.
Growing up in Foster City, outside of San Francisco, Alyssa wanted to be a performer. But that changed as she became aware of the inequities at her large public high school and got a taste of the classroom, as a teacher’s aide in a dance class. “Those experiences really pushed me in a direction of education and made me feel like I needed to be on the ground teaching students, where I could make the biggest impact.”
Alyssa attended Northwestern University, majoring in Education and Social Policy with a concentration in Human Development and Psychological Services. Her sophomore year, she learned about Breakthrough from a classmate who had participated in the program as a middle and high school student. She was accepted to our residency and taught sixth and seventh grade math as a Teaching Fellow in the summers of 2013 and 2014. She also served as an advisor, taught elective classes, and chaired the Celebration committee. The experience was challenging: Teaching Fellows put in extremely long days and have an enormous amount of responsibility. But her Breakthrough summers were also a true learning opportunity and a formative experience for Alyssa as she set out on her chosen career path.
“What makes Breakthrough so valuable is the fact that they frontload you at orientation with lots of practical information that you can apply in the classroom,” Alyssa says. “Then they check up on you every day. My Instructional Coach was always there to help me reflect — what went right, what went wrong, how I could have better dealt with something.” Add in highly motivated, hard working students, and Breakthrough was the “perfect place to grow.”
Alyssa learned to set high expectations for her students and watch them rise to meet the bar. She learned the importance of getting to know each student on a personal level and approaching them from a place of understanding. She learned to collaborate with and depend on her colleagues, whatever their background or working style. And she learned how much she is capable of. “Breakthrough was hard, but I survived. So now, everytime I feel overwhelmed I know I can get through it if I make a To Do list, keep being reflective, and keep working hard. That’s something I really took away from Breakthrough – that hard work mentality and how it pays off.”
After graduating from Northwestern in 2015, Alyssa went on to earn a teaching credential at Cal State East Bay, while doing her student teaching at Alvarado Elementary School in Union City. She is currently a full-time fourth grade teacher there, and as a beginning teacher felt more prepared than her peers because of her Breakthrough experience. “Starting in a classroom at 23, I feel like I’ve had a lot of experience already. I feel so well equipped compared to my peers who are new teachers. If you want to be a teacher, there’s really no better preparation you can get than Breakthrough.”
Alyssa recently returned to Breakthrough as a 6th grade English/Language Arts Instructional Coach, helping to mentor the next generation of educators.
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 spent another summer as a Breakthrough Teaching Fellow, and then completed the Match Teacher Residency, a rigorous teacher preparation program in Boston. He’s now in his eighth year teaching history and Writing for College at Eastside College Preparatory School, a high-performing 6-12 independent school in East Palo Alto that focuses on first-generation college students. He’s also served as head Cross Country coach for the past six seasons.
Cal’s two summers at Breakthrough serve as a foundation for the work he does now. “I wasn’t a great teacher as a college student,” he reflects, “but I was a teacher who was improving, thanks to the really thoughtful feedback I was getting on a day-to-day basis. Even when I felt like I had a good lesson, my Coaches found ways to push me and help me be more reflective about my practice. Breakthrough is bar none the best preparation I’ve heard of.”
Inspired to train the next generation, Cal returned to Breakthrough as an Instructional Coach in 2014. As a highly effective teacher who had walked in the shoes of our Teaching Fellows, he was a powerful role model.
“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.”