Sun Devil alums innovate as math educators during COVID-19


Lauren Hawks with a mask on and a sign that says Welcome to the Hawks nest

ASU graduate Lauren Hawks in her classroom.

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In a year that was tough for schools everywhere in the world, the Title I schools where Teach for America corps members teach saw the inequities of education access in a new light. But two ASU alumni who became educators through Teach for America rose to the occasion, with the help of their colleagues, to adapt and to serve their students.

May 2020 Arizona State University political science graduate Lauren Hawks knew exactly what she was getting into when she applied for TFA. She had been a campus ambassador for the program after learning about it through the Leadership Scholarship Program.

“Immediately, hearing the mission of Teach for America really caught my eye and caught my heart,” Hawks said.

As an ambassador, she worked in partnership with Teach for America to advocate for educational equity, to volunteer for local nonprofits and to help applicants prepare for their TFA interviews. The process includes an application and an interview for the selective program; the acceptance rate is about 15%. In the past several years, ASU has been a top producer of Teach for America corps members. 

Hawks said she fell in love with all the inspiration and connection from people who were passionate about education and seeing how people from different backgrounds could fit into a community of education innovators and find their places.

“One of my biggest things that I think I learned is trying to figure out what motivates people and how we can use their motivation and their drive for specific things, to get the results that they desire,” she said. “I realized that Teach for America was a great way where I can use my leadership skills, my passion for education, what I've learned in undergrad in all my experiences — to take that into the classroom and have firsthand experience.”

Once Hawks was accepted, she knew she wanted to be teaching based on need and to stay home in Phoenix if possible. She was placed at Pueblo Del Sol in the Maryvale neighborhood as a seventh grade math teacher, a good fit since she had considered engineering before political science. First-year teachers are always put to the test, but COVID-19 has thrown another variable into the mix. She’s was teaching online the majority of the year.

“It’s so far been going very, very well. My students are so amazing. They're a little bit sad about being online, but they understand why it needs to be that way,” she said. “And the support is amazing.”

Yet equity was top of mind when it came to accessing virtual education. For the first time ever, Hawks said, the school had Chromebooks for every student, and the school received hot spots to get families connected to the internet.

“The pandemic has highlighted a lot of the inequities and injustices of our system. But I also think that the way that my school, and my district, has been handling things also highlights the resilience and the passion to serve our students,” she said.

Hawks said the leadership experiences she had as a career peer for ASU Career and Professional Development Services and as the president of the Devils’ Advocates at ASU, a group of students who lead tours and answer questions from prospective students and families, helped set the stage for being a teacher. Especially since she had to shift the Devils’ Advocates organization of 170 students to being all virtual in her last semester. She also was able to see things from the virtual students’ perspective during her virtual training through TFA. 

A virtual day for Hawks included teaching to empty seats in her classroom, teaching them to take notes and annotate them while showing their math work on Google slides and in small groups in breakout rooms. She also teaches a Chinese class after school (she minored in Chinese at ASU). Despite the virtual challenges, it’s been a year of clarity for Hawks about her path.

“Although it's really challenging for both teachers, students, families, the school, everyone I know, for me, this is what I'm going to continue doing. Because I love it so much virtually, I know I'm gonna love it when I'm in person and get to interact face-to-face with the students,” Hawks said. Her district returns to in-person learning on March 15, 2021.

About two miles away, another Sun Devil is working with students and teachers alike to improve math instruction at Maryvale Preparatory Academy. ASU women and gender studies and communication graduate Samantha Sidoti began her career as a Teach for America corps member teaching fifth graders. She’s been at the school for five years now and was introduced to TFA through her work as a community assistant for University Housing.

“The more I learned about the organization, the mission of educational equity and how the work is very coalition driven — that we're forming a coalition of people who are going to be working toward this endeavor for forever — that really stood out to me,” Sidoti said.

After four years in the classroom, Sidoti became an instructional coach and interventionist for mathematics at her school, working with teachers and students to improve math performance through coaching, observation, classroom management, leading small groups of math instruction and more. 

Of course, instruction got exponentially more difficult about a year ago. Sidoti said that even pre-COVID-19, teachers are great at being nimble to meet the needs of students, but the pandemic has taken that to a whole new level. 

“Teachers are really good at pivoting and adapting to the needs of their students. They're also wizards at problem solving and getting creative and making new things work. New things are thrown at teachers all the time, and they're just expected to make it work, and they do,” she said. “The volume has now turned way up on that.”

Maryvale Prep went online back in March and have had phases of fully remote and hybrid learning. She said it was distressing at first to not know the technology but that ultimately she realized that the core of her work is the same. 

“I think after we all got over that initial learning curve and started to get into the swing of distance learning, we realized that although our proximity to students is different, the relationships we build with them, the love we pour into them, our teaching of them hasn’t changed at all,” she said. “Good teaching is good teaching, no matter what the platform is.” 

Some of her favorite outcomes from the past year is being able to see creativity among educators and to flex that muscle herself to improve teachers’ and students’ online experiences. She cites supplemental technologies and innovative synchronous and asynchronous lessons that helped students engage in online learning. She stays motivated by seeing the impact of support on both teachers and students. 

“I've always felt that it's just really urgent work. … It continues to feel like every day is so important and no interaction is too small,” she said. “And playing at least a small part in helping someone feel better and do better and accomplish their goal, those moments build on top of each other and could amount to some really great things for students and for teachers. So it keeps me really motivated to keep doing what I do.”

Hawks and Sidoti are among the more than 1,000 current corps members and alums who are changing the education landscape in Arizona. Both are planning futures in the field as master’s degree students at ASU. Hawks is pursuing a master's degree in secondary education at ASU, and Sidoti earned a TFA fellowship to return to ASU for her master's degree in educational leadership.

“While we aren’t surprised about the amazing work our Sun Devil TFA Corps members are doing in the virtual, hybrid or socially distanced classroom, we are exceedingly proud. The way they have stepped up to meet this moment and the needs of their students — it’s just tremendous,” said Julia Tebben, assistant director for ASU's Career and Professional Development Services, which works to connect students with programs such as TFA. 

Hawks said that seeing the education landscape during a pandemic has made it more clear than ever how much the United States needs passionate, highly trained teachers, and she is inspired to see how educators have stepped up to meet this challenge.

“We did see lots of learning grace, learning flexibility this year, but I know that we will come out at the other end, and we will be OK. And we will be whole. But I'm very excited for what the future has to hold,” Hawks said.

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