Each year, one of the most exciting things we do is interview and hire new teachers. Now, in our school’s 8th year of existence, I realized a new possibility this year: we can hire our former students as teachers.
Since our school’s first year in 2011,* we have had students serving as tutors to other students. It started out as students tutoring each other over the summer: students who had passed state exams in math tutored those who had failed the exam. The tutors earned a small stipend. With the support of teachers and the tutors, many of the students passed the exam.
Over the years, we’ve shifted the tutoring opportunities. Now, we give seniors who are on-track to graduate the opportunity to tutor their 12th-grade peers who need support or to serve as teacher assistants in 9th and 10th-grade classrooms. The students apply for the position, and once accepted, we match them to 2-3 classmates who need support, or to an actual classroom where they report daily. The students get a special cord to wear at graduation, a certificate, and a letter of recommendation from me that recognizes their service.
We’ve largely stopped the paid summer tutoring; it became unwieldy to manage as our school became larger. However, for summer, we continue to pay 1-3 students who show particular interest and promise in tutoring their classmates. Last summer, a boy named Hamid** worked as a teacher assistant in a basic literacy class. Hamid is the type of student who is always looking to help. He already knows that he wants to be a nurse. One day, he came up with an idea for a project for the class, and brought in a markers, construction paper, and other supplies that he bought with his own money. He refused reimbursement, telling us that he simply wanted to help the students.
This past summer, two students named Sofia and Jasmine tutored a small group of students in U.S. History. Although they were guided by a teacher, they took a surprising amount of ownership, coming in early to organize materials, calling students who were absent. What touched me most was their worry about how “their students” would perform on the exam: just like my own teachers.
At the end of the summer, Sofia and Jasmine’s students showed clear gains. And Sofia told me she wants to be a math teacher. Something clicked for me in that moment: I saw our students not just as students, but as potential future employees. Future teachers. One of our challenges has always been finding teachers who have similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds as our students. While our priority is always hiring the best teachers regardless of their backgrounds, it’s also important that when our students look at our teacher team, they can also see some teachers as role models who have similar backgrounds to them.
“Sofia,” I said. “When you graduate in 2023, please reach out to us. We’d like to interview you for a teaching position.”
She laughed, but her face lighted up. “Really?” she asked. “I would love that.”
Sofia has already shown many of the characteristics of a great teacher: good planning, patience, a desire for results, the ability to take feedback. When we first made student tutoring a part of our school culture, it was out of necessity: we saw it as one of the best ways to support students who had fallen behind. Now, I see it as a leadership tool and a talent pipeline: student tutoring has opened up possibilities for our students that they, and we, otherwise might not have seen.
*As a new school founded in 2011, we started off with 90 9th grade students, and now have 380 students in grades 9-12.
**The names and identifying features of students have been changed.