When you sign up for Teach for America, you agree to accept the first job offer you receive.
For Kristen Tyler ’10 that was Jesse H. Jones High School in Houston, Texas, where school fights have drawn national publicity and which has been cited in a Johns Hopkins study as a dropout factory with at least 40 percent of entering freshman not making it to their senior year.
But Tyler, who began teaching English there in the fall, has remained steadfast. “Lafayette empowered me to help others,” says the adventurous new teacher, “and gave me the strength and skills to handle difficult situations.”
The school is in the seventh largest school district in the United States and has about 600 students mostly African American and Latino. It is part of the Apollo 20 Program, an initiative in the Houston Independent School District to turn around under-performing schools and students.
Indeed, Tyler is known for her daring curiosity and willingness to seek out and embrace unusual opportunities. She spent a summer working with street youth, aged 16 to 21, in the Cerro Navia barrio in Santiago, Chile. “At their age they know their life depends on becoming educated,” she says. “They recognize the disadvantages of their circumstances and want better so they listen.”
Tyler says she had not previously imagined becoming a teacher, but the experience in Chile changed that.
“Working with youth at that age fired me up,” she says. The study-abroad program, through Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice, included taking courses taught in Spanish at Jesuit Alberto Hurtado University and additional service work with Un Techo Para Chile (a roof for Chile) to build houses and raise money for shantytown reclamation.
Tyler, who received an interdisciplinary degree drawing from the departments of government and law, anthroplogy and sociology, and religious studies with a minor in Spanish, became interested in Teach for America when she heard upperclassmen that she admired – Jillian Gaeta ’07 and Nate Parker ’08 — describe how much the experience meant to them.
Teach for America is a national corps of top college graduates who commit to teach for two years in schools that serve low-income, often underperforming students, and who become lifelong advocates in the effort to expand educational opportunity.
In 2010, a record 46,000 individuals applied to the highly selective program, a 32 percent increase over the previous year. Tyler was among the only 12 percent accepted.
Tyler arrived in the fall at Jones High. During the second week of school, there was a fistfight in her classroom, and several other fights at the school, says Tyler. People in the surrounding neighborhood are killed as a result of gang violence. “It is a tense situation, and some of the teachers who were assigned to the school with me left after one month.”
“In my classroom with my students, I am not afraid,” says Tyler, who is also the adviser to the Step Team. “My students would never hurt me. I have a connection with them and I can tell I am making an impact on their lives. I am also learning to be a better teacher. When I see that a student has mastered a concept I am encouraged and renewed.”
Tyler says the supportive environment of Lafayette helped prepare her. “I was mentored at Lafayette, and I know the value. My thesis advisers email me to see how it is going. I talked to my coach for an hour the other week. They want me to succeed; they are willing to help me in anyway they can. This was true when I was on campus and still is. Lafayette is a network that loves and cares about me; it is ongoing. Mentoring my students is what I truly love.”
Tyler also mentions the importance of learning to think critically and her experience as a head resident adviser. “I complained about the time we had to spend on training and paperwork, but now I need all those skills!,” she says.
Tyler graduated with honors and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. A member of the women’s swim team for four years, she received the James F. Bryant ’40 Excellence Award, presented to a junior student-athlete for high academic achievement, lettering in a varsity spot, and notable community service. Among her many student activities were Student Government, Engineers Without Borders, International Students Association, and Alternative School Break.
Next year, Tyler will be coaching a swim team at the high school.
In the future, Tyler plans to pursue either a law degree or a master’s in higher education or public policy.
Reflecting on her college experience, Tyler said the real accomplishment was the education she gained and the inherent transformation that came with it. “My experience has taught me to make people my priority and to go into the world looking through the eyes of others.”