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Teach For America Q&A with Zachary Simmons
9th Grade Physical Science and Physics Teacher
Todd County High School
Undergraduate Institution: University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
1) How did you decide to apply to Teach for America?
I had been looking for some sort of service to do after my undergrad work before grad school that would draw on my science and engineering education. I looked at some foreign programs, there are some in engineering through the peace corps, and that kind of thing, but most of those were in areas like civil engineering and I didn't think would match as well with my skills in EE and physics.
I stumbled across TFA at a service program info session at my school and was drawn in by the fact they have a site in South Dakota. I'm from SD and I liked the idea of making a contribution in my own state, helping a situation that i felt i should really know more about anyway. I know there is a special need for qualified teachers, especially in technical fields, and especially in rural areas, and i felt that would be one of the best ways to apply my education, so I applied. Also, i come from an undergraduate institution with a strong focus on teaching and students, and i came to greatly appreciate that and want to give something back in that regard. Also, they're working on renewable energy on the Reservations that TFA places people in SD which is something I'm very interested in.
Something i heard at a TFA info dinner really summed it up for me. We were all sitting around discussing future plans and talking about, almost lamenting, all the options we had. One of the TFA alums made the comment that one of the reasons he did TFA was to give his students that same right, that right to opportunities. That idea became one of my main reasons for me wanting to join TFA.
2) What do you like most about teaching? ...like least?
As for teaching, i like being able to connect with students and use what I know to open their minds and their opportunities. I know that a big problem in technical fields is that they can intimidate students. I've heard a lot of "i'm bad at math" or "I just don't do math" and these statements are so sad to me because they're not true. I know that my students could do it if they were held to a higher standard and given some extra help and I hope to be some small part of that. I feel like if they can catch the bug that is the wonder and possibility of science, that can be a tremendous motivating force toward their academic achievement and giving them opportunities in life.
One thing that i did not fully appreciate about teaching is how much work it is. A big part of that is the institute experience, but its a lot of work to think about how to best present material for students so that they get the most out of it. Its definitely cultivated a different perspective on science in me.
3) What kinds of things did you like to do within your SPS chapter? Is their a connection between your SPS activities and your decision to join Teach for America?
I didn't have a tremendous amount of involvement with my SPS chapter. It wasn't because i didn't want to as much as we were just a fledgling chapter from a pretty small physics program. I was in charge of service activities for a year and organized a few things in that vein but I don't have any grand projects to talk about. I would say though, more broadly, that there was a definite connection between my physics educational experience and my decision to join TFA. I come from a liberal arts university and the focus is on teaching, on the students, and i really liked and came to appreciate that focus. That was one of the things to get me interested in possibly teaching.
4) Who are your favorite teachers, and what did they do to achieve that status?
Theres a lot! I'll mention a couple. My physics advisor, Marty Johnston, had a big influence on me. He challenged me a lot academically which I really enjoyed and appreciated, but also he was always there to talk about things, anything really, and he treated me and my fellow students as equals and gave us a lot of responsibility. I liked that.
Jeff Jalkio, my EE advisor, was another prof that i really came to appreciate. He had the amazing ability to make anything interesting, which is a tall order when you're talking about something like computer architecture or assembly code. I came to admire that and that had an influence on my own desire to perhaps be a teacher. Also, he went to great lengths to help his students and i really appreciated that. He really knew the underlying material and that showed in his classes and I want to be like that.
5) Who is your favorite physicist?
Richard Feynman comes to mind.
6) What would you say is an important consideration or piece of advice that you would give other SPS members who are thinking about applying to Teach for America?
Talk to grad schools. Most I think are quite accommodating as far as deferral and TFA. That was a concern I had but was put to ease once I started talking to schools. Also, the application process is not dissimilar to the grad school application process, so you might as well give it consideration.
Also, since i've been in SD, it has really impressed me how much of an impact you can make. Not only are you helping students get through school and give them the educational opportunities they deserve, but as a student of physics myself, to know that i can directly help my students see some of the wonder in the world that i find so fascinating is really motivating.