Without the state’s Teacher Opportunity Corps program, Syracuse English language arts teacher Leeza Roper doubts her dream of teaching would have become a reality.
After a school counselor at her Brooklyn high school encouraged her to explore life outside the city and apply to an upstate campus, Roper, pictured at left, landed at SUNY Oswego. It was a big leap of faith since she had never even visited the campus overlooking Lake Ontario.
“Both my parents are deaf and we didn’t have the money or the time for college visits,” Roper said. “It ended up being a good choice — but it was a big transition for me.”
Six hours away from home, Roper really struggled that first semester. It wasn’t just academics; it was trying to juggle school work along with extracurriculars like being an African Dance captain and an active member of the American Sign Language Club.
“I was forgetting my reason for being there, my studies,” Roper said. An email from Nichole Brown, director of SUNY Oswego’s Teacher Opportunity Corps program, changed everything.
“Ms. Brown and TOC literally picked me up and carried me through,” Roper said. In addition to tuition assistance, a stipend for books and transportation funding for clinical experiences, TOC also provided crucial emotional support with weekly check-in meetings, academic help and networking opportunities. Her TOC extended placement in Syracuse led to a full-time job offer.
“The check-in meetings were the best part — making you feel like you weren’t alone,” Roper said. “It was such a strong community where we felt free to share our feelings and vent. It was so empowering to be together, with people who look like you, Asians, Hispanics ... We talked through ways to handle difficult situations.”
Sidney Rajab, another Oswego TOC student, agreed, saying he’s not sure he would have made it through student teaching without TOC.
“Many times I wanted to give up,” said Rajab, a recently tenured automotive technology teacher at Edison Career and Technology High School in Rochester. “There was so much pressure and I was overwhelmed preparing lessons, labs and teaching for the first time in front of students.”
A Ugandan emigrant, Rajab was self-conscious about his accent, but Brown and his TOC peers helped him build teaching skills and confidence.
Rajab also greatly appreciated TOC’s extra support on how to prep for the teacher certification exams, launch his career and later secure financial support to earn his master’s degree. TOC also helps cover the costs of certification exams and fingerprinting , which can add up to more than $1,200.
“Even at this point, as I’m completing my doctorate degree, I still call Ms. Brown for advice,” Rajab said. “She stays in touch long after you graduate. I can always count on her.”
Both Roper and Rajab feel fortunate they were able to get into Teacher Opportunity Corps, a state-funded program at 17 public and private colleges around the state. The $3.45 million program serves about 600 students statewide, including at SUNY’s Brockport, Buffalo State, Cortland, Old Westbury and Oswego campuses; and CUNY’s Hunter, Medgar Evers, Queens and York colleges.
TOC is designed to increase the number of historically underrepresented individuals entering the teaching field, providing financial, social, academic and professional support — setting candidates up for success and improving retention rates.
“We need to diversify the teacher workforce,” said Brown, a member of United University Professions, representing academic faculty and staff at the State Univerity of New York. “Eighty percent of the teachers in the state workforce are white, while students of color make up the majority of the student population.”
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said expanding promising programs like TOC is essential if the state wants to recruit and retain a more diverse teaching pool. NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching initiative is providing grants to encourage local unions to create “Grow Your Own” programs and work with community and higher ed partners like TOC to improve access and support for more students of color. “All students, whether in urban, suburban or rural schools, benefit from a diverse teacher workforce,” DiBrango said.
Both Roper and Rajab said it’s important for students of color to have role models they can identify with.
“I tell them, ‘You’re sitting in the same spot I was in — the same high school, the very same classroom. Auto technology is such a high demand field that can open a lot of doors for you,’” said Rajab, who is teaching at his alma mater. “I’m a living example of what’s possible.”