Master’s Degree in Education – with a Double Major in Resilience and Passion

Emily Ko

I never pictured myself teaching kindergarten.

I came into the field of education in baby steps: volunteering first as a reading buddy at a local school, then tutoring part-time at a handful of non-profits, and then leading my own classroom of students as an After School Educator at Aspire Firestone before finally applying to the Residency Program.  Most of my experience had been working with third graders, and they were hands-down my favorite.  When I found out I would be a Resident in a third grade classroom for the 2014-2015 school year, I was elated.  How perfect!

But when the time came to apply for full-time teaching positions in the spring of my Residency year, options were limited. I had a big question to answer for myself:  Was it more important to stay at the school I had come to love, or to stay with the grade I was comfortable and confident teaching?  I couldn’t have it both ways.

So I thought about my year and everything I had learned.  I had learned about Doug Lemov and Lee Canter’s behavior management strategies.  I had learned about constructivism and how to create a 5E lesson plan.  I had learned how to analyze DRA data and scaffold reading instruction and teach about invertebrates and fractions and contractions.  I had seen all of this unfold in the world of third grade, and it worked.  It clicked.

But I also learned that I can handle more than I think I can.  I learned how to ask for help.  I learned how to fail, and do so gracefully.  I learned how to love feedback, because it made me better.  I learned how to be uncomfortable, or nervous, or frustrated, or unprepared — and to teach anyway.  To love and care for my students anyway.

I was able to learn these bigger, more important heart lessons because of my mentor, Rachel Grimes, who walked by my side throughout an otherwise impossible year, making me feel understood, valued, encouraged, and strengthened every step of the way  …and because of my Resident cohort, a precious group of kindred spirits who somehow always understood exactly what I was feeling  …and because of my colleagues at JCA who supported and encouraged me from day one, despite my being “just a Resident.”

So I decided to take on the challenge of a new grade.  And OH BOY, was it a challenge.  Teaching kindergarten my first year called into question so many ideas I had formed of myself as an educator.  Am I really cut out for this?  Can I handle this many 4- and 5-year olds?  Why isn’t my positive narration working?  Did he really just put an eraser in his mouth?  Has anyone seen my sanity?

But it gets better.

If you know yourself, and you know the people you can count on – it gets better.  This is what the Residency taught me.  Soon, the tears of frustration start to fade, the moments where you want to crawl under your desk and hide come less frequently, and you start to love your kids like they are really yours.  They bring you their rock collection (a.k.a. an envelope full of pebbles) and say, “For you, Ms. Ko.”  Or you’re a few minutes late to class one day and you hear a chorus of “I missed you!” (and also, “I love your rainboots! I think you are beautiful!”)  Or you watch quietly as one of your kids who didn’t know the alphabet the first day of school is now sounding out and writing the word “mwnstr” and you realize – because you are now a real kindergarten teacher – that that is the word “monster” and that is amazing progress.

You know you’re in the right place.

Heading into the third month of my first year as a full-fledged teacher, I can say without a doubt that I am glad I stuck it out.  Each day, I am only more grateful for the uniquely immersive experience I had as an Aspire Resident and the relationships I built along the way.  I know I have found what I love and am learning every day what I am capable of, and I am surrounded by other educators who are doing the same.

Written by: Emily Ko
Kindergarten Teacher
Aspire Junior Collegiate Academy

It Makes all of the Difference in the… Educational World


When I stepped into my classroom this year as a first year teacher at Langston Hughes Academy in Stockton, California, I remembered to check off the necessities of what it takes to be an effective educator: Motivation, check… Grit, double check…supplies, well, almost, an intrinsic sense of confidence in my craft and openness to continual development? My thoughts rested in a place of gratitude because due to the experience gained during the Aspire Teacher Residency program, I felt at home in my new environment, even on the very, first day.

As a recent graduate from the ATR program in Central Valley, and the mother of a five week old and three-year-old, I knew that my precision and attention to detail would make all of the difference in my first year, resulting in either burn out or in exposing the passion that burned within me for teaching students to express themselves through writing.

During her recent Ted Talk, Angela Duckworth motivated further inquiry: “What we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective…” and goes on to say that “grit matters, especially for students at risk of dropping out” (2013). I believe that the theory of grit applies to everyone present in the classroom, especially the educator. The beauty of the structure of the ATR program shines in the cultivation of continued motivation.

This cultivated motivation and grit extends to my classroom culture. My 7th graders know that they are part of a community when they step through our door and know better than to submit incomplete work, even if it is just one “?” on an Academic Vocabulary Assessment because the acceptance of opting-out for one question can lead to an overall acceptance of defeat when a student either hasn’t prepared, or doesn’t feel prepared. When these expectations were first communicated to students, I faced my share of rebellion:

“What if we just don’t know, Ms. Guzman?” Hands shot into the air like a swarm of silent protests.

“Is an educated guess better than giving up? A blank response communicates that you didn’t try. Having an incorrect answer is okay, then we know where to go from there, but you have to try,” I encouraged.

During student led conferences, one parent asked me if I thought my expectations were too high of writing snapshots and coursework completion. I communicated that if expectations lead to motivation and to ensuring that students not only reach college, but are successful in college, I feel that they are not only appropriate, but essential.

During my time as a teacher resident, I was surrendered to a barrage of expectations—to fifty-hour work weeks with a side of scholarly essays to write each weekend, to trying to achieve a state of work-life balance among the commotion of expectations, and of responding to parent concerns while meeting the needs of an array of learners. Because of the experience I gained, because of the focus on grit, and because of the Aspire Teacher Residency program, what once seemed like chaos is now my solace.

When I was a little girl cycling through an environment of adversity and dimly navigating through drop-out factories, the classroom was my sanctuary. The encouragements of teachers that told me I mattered, were my scripture. When I decided to leave my career in insurance to pursue my dream of becoming an educator, I reviewed many programs, some that even boasted as little as one-month of time in the classroom  in order to earn a credential, but none seemed as thorough or as effective as the Aspire Teacher Residency program. None of them would have prepared me to feel as at home in the classroom as I had as a child, and as I do today.

ATR influences and reinforces the importance of grit as Duckworth’s research has: “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint” (2013). And focus on cultivating grit and a growth mindset, makes all of the difference, in the educational world, for the students, for the teacher, for the changes needed in education.


Duckworth, A.L. (2013, April). Angela Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit.

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Written By: Nena Weinsteiger-Guzman
7th Grade Humanities Teacher
Aspire Langston Hughes Academy

The Second Year

ATR picture (002)

“The first year, you survive; the second year, you learn; the third year, you teach.” – JoAnna Beck, former ATR mentor.

I survived my first year of teaching. The reason I say this is because the day-to-day challenges were too great for me to glean much knowledge over the course of my first year. This year, my second year, has felt like an astronomically steep learning curve for me. I look back at last year’s challenges and think to myself, “Maybe if I tried to use my prep time as a positive incentive…” or “I should have had more patience before moving her clip down…” Or, “I should have responded with a more open mind…” Of course, the “shoulda woulda couldas” go on forever. I am now focused on what I can do on a day to day basis to improve my practice.

In my second year, I’ve learned to recognize where my growth areas are, and work on them daily. For example, in the afternoons, my (and my kindergarteners’) patience is thin. Knowing that, I’ve integrated deep breathing exercises as brain breaks for me, and include the children along with it. They love it! When we were doing our deep breathing, stretching, and moving exercises today, I started feeling better, and I noticed their wiggling and talking reduced, too. Maybe it was the new surge of patience that allowed me to see the calmness of the room, or maybe they were actually calmer as a result of the exercises – either way, I was able to teach better in the classroom because of it.

I feel substantially less nervous, but just as excited, to teach my third year next year. I will have survived, learned, and finally will be able to apply my practice to the classroom. While each day still presents its challenges, I feel much more capable of handling them. I can’t wait to see what my future in teaching holds!

Written By: Mimi Karabulut
Kindergarten Teacher
Aspire Coleman Elementary

What does a teacher need to do to be successful?

Building a Better Teacher

As a mentor with ATR, I think a lot about these questions. It may seem funny to still be grappling with these basic ideas, but teaching is full of daily challenges and something can always be improved. I recently read a book which explores teacher development called, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach it to Everyone)” by Elizabeth Green.   Like many books about education, it explores how to “fix” our public education system, but focuses on a specific issue: how to improve the overall quality of teaching by improving the quality of teacher training.

Green contends that good teaching has historically been characterized as the result of inherent qualities and thought of as either “you got it or you don’t”. Good teachers have been thought to be successful because they are kind, charismatic or have the right personality traits. The problem with this line of thinking, Green argues, is that we cannot afford to wait around for these magical people who are the “teacher type”. We need great teachers now.

Green makes the case that in order to improve teaching quality; we must shift our mindset around what teaching is and what makes a teacher successful. She says we must dispose of the idea that great teachers are born that way and acknowledge that good teaching requires a highly complex set of skills and understandings that takes study, apprenticeship and practice to develop. We must also understand that the pathway to becoming a good teacher, like the pathways into other skilled professions like medicine or engineering, should be dynamic, rigorous and practice based.

Green’s book was meaningful to me because it helped me better articulate something I have come to understand about my profession, despite larger societal messages to the contrary: teaching is complicated, intellectual and highly skilled. No matter how much zeal I have for transforming the lives of my students, I cannot be successful if I don’t have the practical and intellectual tools to do so. Teaching is creative work that requires an understanding of the subject that one teaches and an understanding of a host of other disciplines. Teachers need to be aware of the psychology of learning, motivation and behavior, classroom management, pedagogy, adolescent development and group dynamics, to name a few. This is a lot to learn when first entering the profession. For anyone interested in improving public education, especially for historically underserved students, I think is important to ask: how can teachers gain this elaborate skill set before entering the classroom so they can be the competent and effective educators that students deserve?

When I began teaching, I was an ATR resident. I am endlessly grateful that this was the pathway I chose into this profession. Looking back on my career, I don’t know if I would have made it past my first year without a mentor supporting me in navigating the initial (and ongoing) steep learning curve of teaching. ATR supported me in building what I needed most in my first year of teaching: the practical skillset necessary for managing a classroom. A skilled teacher makes it look as if there is almost no management occurring and that students are simply enthusiastic and motivated to learn. This is how the classroom of my mentor, Ben Feinberg, appeared to me at first. It seemed that he was just a charismatic person with a mesmerizing effect on students. However, as I had the opportunity to work with him day in and day out, I began to understand the immense amount of deliberate planning that went into creating his classroom community. He possessed a deep understanding of learning and classroom dynamics that made him a successful leader in his classroom. With the constant guidance of my mentor, I was able to slowly begin building my skillset and transition into teaching my own classroom. I still struggled with the basics of classroom management and organizing the massive workload, but my mentor had imparted the mindset of constant reflection and growth, so I knew how to keep going in challenging times.

As I reflect on Green’s message, I believe that ATR is taking a step in the right direction for teacher training. This year, I am in my 5th year of teaching (6th if you count my residency year), and I am honored to be in the position of mentoring an Aspire resident. I have been invited back into the beginner’s mind, and offered the opportunity to re-visit and hone the skill set that was imparted to me with so much care by my mentor several years ago. I am able to see how much I have changed and learned throughout the past 5 years, and stunned by the realization that I still feel that I am only at the beginning of understanding of what excellent teaching looks like. I am grateful for the complexity of my work. I am also appreciative that I can contribute to building and transforming my profession by providing new teachers with the supportive framework that they need to become highly skilled and successful professionals .

Written By:
Erin Kohl
11th and 12th Grade English Teacher
Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy