A key component of the TeachOregon initiative, the Teacher Cadets program supports high schoolers interested in becoming teachers. Modeled on a program in South Carolina, it launched here in 2014 to recruit high-achieving students of diverse backgrounds to teaching.
But Teacher Cadets is much more than a career-prep course for aspiring young teachers.
“We’ve become a community,” says Rosemary Mba, an English teacher and advisor to the program at North Salem and McKay high schools in the Salem-Keizer School District. “We’ve become a family where the students can talk about their own experiences in the classroom and the people in their lives who saw good in them and encouraged them to actualize their dreams.”
Juan Carlos Perez Fernandez, 17, exemplifies the very best of the Teacher Cadets. Born in the small town of San Martin de Bolaños, Mexico, he immigrated to Salem with his mother when he was nine.
He struggled when he started the 5th grade because he couldn’t speak English. He remembers being a “lone wolf” with few friends. But he was determined, and by the end of 6th grade he had mastered his new language, speeding through every level of English language development.
He says, “To this day that’s been one of my biggest accomplishments.”
Captain of North Salem’s varsity soccer team, Juan is graduating this June with a 3.97 GPA. He spoke with Chalkboard Project about his experience as a teacher cadet.
When did you first get interested in becoming a teacher?
My junior year I volunteered at a church as an assistant for a 3rd grade catechism class. It was something I just liked doing. I realized the kids looked up to me. A friend who was in Teacher Cadet program told me to try it out. I signed up, now here I am—I’m going to be a teacher.
What did you learn being a teacher cadet?
I learned that being a teacher is about more than just knowing the curriculum. It’s about getting to know your students, their backgrounds. It’s about teaching different kinds of people. It can almost be like you’re a parent, raising the students, teaching them about life.
I also learned how important it is here in Oregon and all over the country to have more minority teachers who can understand and relate to their students. Other than my Spanish teachers, I never really had Hispanic teachers. It was pretty strange. I mean, many of them were great teachers and tried to understand their students, but I never identified with them that way.
Ms Mba always said, ‘To be able to teach somebody you have to be able to connect with them.’
What was a highlight of your time in the program?
One of the best parts of the program was doing my field experience at Englewood Elementary, two days a week for four weeks. I was assigned to a 2nd grade class with 20-plus students, where I got to observe the teacher and work one-on-one with students. I learned a lot.
I was a mentor to one of the kids who needed help catching up on his schoolwork. At first, he wasn’t wanting to come to school, wasn’t motivated to work. I talked to him about sports and school. I would talk to him about my good grades in school and how I played varsity soccer since my freshman year. I shared my own experiences: how I came from Mexico not knowing how to read or spell. He is Hispanic too, so it was sort of me saying, ‘I was just like you once.’ Trying to be a role model. I got to build a nice relationship with him—I wasn’t expecting that. Even after the field experience ended, I still go to the school every Wednesday.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited to go to Western Oregon University to become a teacher. Pretty nervous, too. But, I feel the Teacher Cadet program gave me a really good head start. I picked Western because it has a good education program, and because it's close enough for me to be near my mother and my family. I also ended up becoming a Ford Scholar (The Ford Family Foundation is one of the founders of Chalkboard Project), which covers 90 percent of my four years. So, I’m going to be able to live on campus, and it will be much easier for my mom with expenses.
If I do well, Ford will pay for me to keep going for my master’s degree. So that’s the plan. Then I want to be a teacher in a high school, teach ESL. I’m really excited. I feel I could really help.
- Teacher Preparation