Raul Mendez teaches English literature at Miami Edison Senior High School in Little Haiti, one of the lowest-income communities in the nation.
Sara Cole teaches reading in the classroom next door.
Beyond physical proximity, the two recent college grads have something else in common: they signed up to teach in an inner-city school through a program called Teach for America.
Edison is the classic underserved school, with a poverty-stricken student body consisting largely of recent immigrants and students who can have many disadvantages at home.
“It certainly is an eye-opener when you first begin working here,” said Cole, an alumnus of the University of Washington.
“We’ve been able to kind of shoot down those stereotypes that being smart isn’t cool,” Mendez said, explaining how he constantly tells his students that they can achieve, they can go to college, they can succeed. Mendez is a Penn State graduate.
Teach for America recruits dynamic college grads like Cole and Mendez, trains them intensively, and they agree to spend at least two years on the job. For some, it’s a test run to see if they want teaching to become their careers.
Cole is from Seattle, far from home in every way.
“You ultimately realize these children do come here to learn and they will work hard each day regardless of what they go home to, regardless of their outside circumstances,” Cole said.
Mendez is from the Bronx, and feels like a mentor and teacher at the same time.
“I definitely see the children wanting to be like me and I always express to them, I don’t want you to be like me, I want you to be better than me,” Mendez said. “I love them, I think that they’re hard-working, I think that they’re tough.”
The Miami-Dade schools have 300 Teach for America teachers, 14 at Edison alone, where the principal says they bring a spark of energy to the school, a fresh perspective.
“What we do here is a very challenging job, and the preparation has to be intense, and you have to have people who are committed and dedicated and they definitely are,” said Try Diggs, who is in her second year at the helm of Edison.
So by placing recent college grads in schools that really need the help, Teach for America opens the door to a world in which they can really make a difference.
“And I get the pleasure of feeling as though I’m making a difference, each day,” Cole said. “I also get the joy of laughing with my students, I’m proud of them.”
Mendez says it’s a two-way street.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship, I get a lot from them but they also get a lot from me,” he explains.
Both he and Cole now have their sights set on careers in education.