From Teacher to Policymaker: A Teacher Residency Story

From Teacher to Policymaker: A Teacher Residency Story

KIPP SoCal teacher resident Vanessa Zelaya (right) with her KIPP LA Prep teacher mentor Tommi Binns (left).

When Vanessa Zelaya arrived at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), she was nervous and excited to begin her college journey. Because of her impressive academic background, Zelaya received a full scholarship straight out of high school and was determined to make the most of this experience. 

In her first year at UCI, Zelaya was an undeclared major who took advantage of this period to discover and explore her limitless potential. Since she was always passionate about working with young people, she figured teaching would be the ideal choice for her, so she enrolled in an education course and was immediately drawn to the complexities of the education system. 

Having grown up in South Central Los Angeles, she was eager to learn more about the education policies perpetuating inequities and injustices. She quickly recognized that policymakers were making inequitable decisions because they lacked first-hand experience.

So, after finishing the course, she decided to become a triple major in political science, education, and sociology with the ultimate goal of running for office and joining the fight for educational equity. To gain a deeper understanding of the issues she hopes to address one day, she knew she would need to seek first-hand classroom experience right out of college.

When she graduated, Zelaya’s friend recommended she enroll at the Alder Graduate School of Education in their Master’s and Credential Teacher Residency program to fast-track her teaching career. Alder’s Teacher Residency program partners with numerous K-12 schools throughout California and allows their students to earn their master’s degrees and teaching credentials in just one year. 

Because of her alignment with the mission, she joined the KIPP SoCal Teacher Residency program and started her teacher residency at KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory in Boyle Heights. Since the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, Zelaya has been at the campus four days a week, gaining hands-on experience and one-on-one support from her teacher mentor, Tommi Binns. 

For more than six years, Binns has been a dedicated member of the KIPP SoCal family, having served as a substitute teacher, lead social studies teacher, and department chair. In addition to these responsibilities, she has shared her expertise with aspiring educators as an Alder Instructional Coach for over three years.

“I feel lucky to be placed with a mentor who has experience as a teacher and mentor,” said Zelaya. “Because of her previous experience as a mentor, she’s able to help me a lot with my program requirements and deadlines, all while helping me grow in the classroom.”  

Since Zelaya had no prior teaching experience, it was understandable for her to feel anxious stepping in front of the classroom to a room full of sixth graders. However, Binns quickly picked up on her concerns and gave her advice that has played a pivotal role in helping her feel confident and genuine in front of students. 

“This was my first time in the classroom, so I didn’t know how I was going to build relationships with the students without crossing boundaries and still maintaining that teacher relationship,” said Zelaya. “Ms. Binn told me to always be myself, and the rest would follow.”

In addition to her apprenticeship at KIPP LA Prep, Zelaya attends weekly seminars with her cohort of KIPP SoCal teacher residents as they bridge their classroom experiences with educational theory and research. Zelaya’s favorite experience has been the relationships and community of support she’s built throughout this experience.

“Coming into the program, I was scared it wasn’t going to be worth moving back to LA and commuting to school, but it’s been worth it so far,” said Zelaya. “The support I’ve gotten from my mentor, school staff, grade-level team, content team, admin team, and classmates has been my favorite part.”

Once she graduates in June, she hopes to continue her journey at KIPP SoCal as a middle school teacher, where she can continue to impact students directly. In the future, she plans to shake the status quo and make meaningful systemic changes as a policymaker who focuses on educational equity. 

Learn more about our Teacher Residency Program