“What makes my favorite teachers so amazing?” Aniya Mahfood Shockness, 15, wondered aloud to herself in a multipurpose room full of other high school students chattering among themselves.
“It’s how they interact and connect with us, and try to understand us,” the East Side High School ninth grader said. “You can teach wonderful lessons, but they’re not wonderful if you don’t know how to connect with us.”
That’s what the teacher-in-training hopes to do in several more years: teach wonderful lessons.
Mahfood Shockness is in her first year at The Teacher Academy at East Side High School, Newark’s four-year teacher training program aimed at recruiting and preparing students to enter the teaching profession and return to their communities.
She and roughly 34 other students currently enrolled in the program will be receiving a $1,200 stipend this spring and another $2,500 in the summer from the American Federation of Teachers, the union’s president Randi Weingarten announced at a news conference on Monday.
“We want to make sure that you can dream your dreams and achieve them,” Weingarten said to that same room with Mahfood Shockness, her classmates, and teachers. “We need to help create those conditions so that it becomes doable and workable for you to do this kind of work.”
Weingarten said the one-time donation for student stipends will total $125,000. She hopes that the state, district, and other community organizations can step in going forward to fund semester stipends for students in the program.
The academy, which kicked off in 2020, partners with Montclair State University in a dual enrollment portion of the program for juniors and seniors to earn up to 30 college credits. The program’s Class of 2023 will be the first to graduate from the academy.
Some students in the program, Weingarten said, have been overwhelmed with other responsibilities.
“We had people who actually said I can’t do this program any more because I have to work,” she said. “We saw in the work we’ve done in the teacher academy that this piece was missing. A stipend for kids is missing. And instead of waiting for other people to solve it, we said, `let’s give the seed money now.’”
Brianna McClave, who teaches ninth graders in the program, said she was excited to see her students’ faces light up when they heard the announcement.
“I think this pandemic has impacted a lot of people, especially our students,” McClave said. “I’m so happy my kids will be able to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s really going to help them in the long run.”
Rayssa Fernandes, a junior in the program, hopes one day to be a psychology teacher.
“My goal is always to learn as much as I can,” Fernandes, 16, said. “In the future, I really hope that what I learn can help and benefit future generations.”
Superintendent Roger León recommitted to the promise he made when the program was first announced in 2019 and said a teaching contract will be waiting for graduates of the program.
“Not only will they graduate in June of 2023, but I will issue all of them teaching contracts in Newark,” he said. “In 2027, I expect to see all of you back here in Newark.”
As of now, it’s a $65,000 annual salary contract, he added.
At the end of the event, the juniors in the program invited Weingarten and Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell to attend their graduation in June of 2023.
The investment in the teacher academy comes amid a national teacher shortage that has rippled across the state, including Newark schools.
In the district, León said, there are currently 110 teacher vacancies. When the school year started, there were 120 instructional positions unfilled in the district.
Earlier this school year, after Mahfood Shockness learned about the teacher shortage, she started to research articles about the shortage of Black teachers. Growing up in Brooklyn, she had many Black teachers. But when she moved to Newark, she had fewer teachers who looked like her, she said.
“I know how it feels to feel isolated in a classroom you’re going through a school day and none of my teachers are Black,” she said. “I find that to be kind of sad. This class definitely feels like a good option and good opportunity for me.”
Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.