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One Year Out: Eunice Roh ’15, Kindergarten Teacher

Eunice Roh ’15 first pondered a career in teaching after she joined a tutoring program for junior high school students while she was attending high school in Andover, MA. Roh’s plans crystallized at Vassar when she majored in sociology with  a correlate in education and tutored students in the Poughkeepsie school system.

Eunice Roh ’15, kindergarten teacher with Teach for America Photo: April Brock

Today, Roh spends her time with a roomful of 5-year-olds in an inner-city school. She is starting her second year as a kindergarten teacher at Monroe Elementary School in Oklahoma City. “Tutoring at Vassar really sparked my interest in a career in education,” she says, “and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Roh was hired under the auspices of Teach for America (TFA), a not-for-profit agency that recruits and trains college graduates for teaching positions in urban school districts throughout the country. Roh says she knew virtually nothing about Oklahoma City before she moved there last year. “I’d never been outside the Northeast before, so everything here was new to me,” she says.

Roh says she gained valuable experience taking education courses and tutoring Poughkeepsie students through Vassar’s Urban Education Initiative, but she adds she learned quickly that nothing could have prepared her fully for her first year in the classroom. “Anyone who tells you the first year of teaching was easy would be lying,” she says.

Roh says many of her students came to school with serious issues that hampered their ability to learn. “I was often amazed by how much trauma some of these children have endured in just five or six years,” she says. “And because of these experiences, they don’t process emotion as well as others. I had to learn to be their biggest supporter and understand they were not always coming from a safe space.”

The Oklahoma City schools aren’t funded substantially under the best of circumstances, Roh says, and budgets have been slashed further as a result of the recent downturn of Oklahoma’s oil-based economy. Teachers’ salaries are lower in Oklahoma than in neighboring states, so there’s a constant teacher shortage, and there is scant money for supplies. “I often buy stuff for my classroom, but I’ve been lucky to find donors for some things,” she says. “Obtaining supplies is an added task on top of everything else you’re doing, but it’s a common struggle in urban school districts.”

Being a part of the Teach for America program has helped her cope with some of her challenges, Roh says. “I had to learn a lot on the job, but I was lucky enough to have the support of other teachers and a great coach at TFA,” she says.

Roh credits Julie Riess, director of Vassar’s Wimpfheimer Nursery School and a visiting prof. of education, with inspiring her to work with younger students. “Having that experience with Julie made me want to work with children who are just developing and constantly learning and growing,” she says.

Roh’s commitment with Teach for America ends next spring, and she says she’s not sure whether she will remain in Oklahoma City or move somewhere else. But she says her job has been as rewarding as it is challenging. “At the end of the school year last year when I had to assess all my kids, I saw the progress they had made,” she says. “Many of them didn’t know any of their letters when they came to school, and all of them knew them at the end of the year.

“And there was one child who was not able to play with others when he came to school and was throwing stuff every 30 minutes,” Roh continues. “By the end of the year he was able to sit quietly with everyone else. Those tangible changes made me realize I’d made a difference and that doing this was definitely a risk worth taking.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Wednesday, November 2, 2016