When she was a young child living in a Spanish-speaking home, Thalia Vega had a reading specialist at Buchanan Elementary School who helped her believe she could get the hang of reading in English. Other teachers also inspired her to believe she could do well if she gave it her best effort.
“Those people at school were like my cheerleaders. They always had something good to say,” Vega said. “The teachers would ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I automatically knew I wanted to be a teacher, because of the staff. They were so very kind, they believed in me.”
She thinks about those teachers as she begins her first year of teaching, in a third grade class at Southwest Community Campus. To be teaching in the same school system she attended makes the connection to her childhood mentors even stronger, she says.
“I am a product of this district,” she said, getting her classroom ready before school one early fall morning. “Teaching, it is a very humbling profession, but even more so if you are serving the district from which you came. You’re able to give back to the community.”
Leonard Garyson feels that gratitude as well. A 1997 graduate of Creston High School, he transitioned this fall from being a paraprofessional to a third grade teacher at Mulick Park Elementary School.
“It means a lot,” said Garyson, known affectionately as “Mr. Bo” to students and staff. “I feel like I’m giving back to myself, in a way. Being able to help people who are in the same situation as me, kids that are growing up in the same environment … (to) be there for them the way a lot of people were for me.”
As GRPS grads coming back to teach in the city schools, Vega and Garyson offer something extra to the school system and their students, says Nick Swartz, talent acquisition manager for Grand Rapids Public Schools. Research shows students perform better under a teacher who went to their district, and teacher retention is higher, he said.
“It’s a success story that makes an impact,” Swartz said of homegrown teachers. “Students can kind of see themselves in those teachers. That’s going to help make a difference in the lives (of students).”
It may also nudge some students toward teaching to have teachers who “were once in their shoes and maybe look like them,” he added.
As his title suggests, Swartz looks for ways to recruit new teachers at a time when that’s easier said than done, especially for ethnic and racial minority teachers. “We want our teachers to reflect our students as much as possible,” he said.
GRPS encourages current students to consider teaching through programs such as the Academy of Teaching and Learning at Innovation Central High School. Through the Young Educators Society of Michigan, Swartz also takes district students to university conferences on the teaching profession.
“I want to be able to impact children the same way (my teachers) impacted me.”– Thalia Vega, Southwest Community Campus teacher
With prospective teachers such as Vega and Garyson, Swartz and other officials try to provide support and connections to help them on their way to job interviews. Both worked as GRPS paraprofessionals while completing their college teaching certifications, providing them with income before being hired for their positions this fall.
‘Children need to see themselves’
For Vega, a 2012 graduate of Central High School (now Innovation Central), connecting with Swartz at a job fair last March, along with meeting SWCC Principal Carlos de la Barrera, helped point her back to her own school system. Swartz helped her navigate the job application process and she lined up an interview with the principal.
She did her student teaching last fall at Harrison Park School, then worked as a parapro in the spring. She also interviewed with districts in Wyoming and at other GRPS schools before landing the job at Southwest Community Campus – a bilingual school she finds both fun and challenging.
“Teaching in Spanish is very tricky” in academic terms, even though she grew up speaking it at home, she said. “Honestly, I’m learning from the kids.”
But she’s glad for the chance to stand before her students as a Latino teacher, something she doesn’t ever recall having herself.
“I truly believe children need to see themselves represented in the media, in professions, in all forms,” Vega said. “Children really pay attention to that.”
She wants to set a good example as a leader who teaches students not just the “un, dos, tres” of math, but to be kind to each other and never give up on themselves – the kind of encouragement she got from her childhood teachers.
“I want to be able to impact children the same way they impacted me,” she said.
Then she greeted each of her students as they came into the classroom: “Buenos dias!”
Picking up the Torch
Over at Mulick Park, Garyson – let’s call him “Mr. Bo,” like everyone else does – was already a familiar friend to many students, staff and parents by the time he was hired to teach this fall.
A 1997 Creston High grad, he ran the LOOP after-school program at Mulick Park for 10 years, worked the last two as a parapro, and did his student teaching there last spring. He’d also done after-school programming at United Methodist Community House and coached basketball at the former Huff Elementary and Central High schools.
Mr. Bo was so much a part of Mulick Park that staff members encouraged him to become a teacher, giving him a confidence boost. While working, he earned a teaching degree online from Grand Canyon University, with which GRPS has an agreement, providing tuition discounts to its staff.
“I knew I was good at building relationships, and kids were willing to listen to me,” Mr. Bo said, sitting in his classroom after school. “I felt I could do more to help in the classroom, and kind of tie the two together.”
“I feel like I’m giving back to myself, in a way.”– Leonard ‘Mr. Bo’ Garyson, Mulick Park Elementary teacher
Above his desk hangs a sign reading, “Never Forget: ‘You are the leaders of tomorrow.’” It’s a quote from his late aunt, Ruth Jones-Hairston, a widely respected educator in GRPS for more than 30 years, who died in June. For him, it’s a daily reminder of his responsibility and her legacy: “Her passing and me coming into this job at the same time was kind of like me picking up the torch.”
Having been taught in GRPS — including by his aunt in eighth grade – Mulick Park is the “perfect scenario” for picking up the torch while being a positive black male role model, he said.
“This will be a special group to me,” Mr. Bo said of his class. “I hope to see them grow up to be leaders and be successful, that they feel they can achieve at a high level and be whatever they want to be in life.”