After two years as a second-grade teacher with Teach for America, Alyssa Baker ’14 will enter law school with a heightened passion for advocacy and education reform.
Alyssa Baker ’14 always planned to become a lawyer. High school, then college, then law school: That was the trajectory. But now, as she sits in her classroom, surrounded by 24 energetic 7-year-olds, the second-grade teacher, who’s taken two years off between undergraduate and graduate school to participate in Teach for America, says it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“Teach for America is a notoriously difficult program, and there’s merit to a lot of that,” Baker says. “The program has challenged me in so many ways, and I’ve gained so many life skills that I’ll use in my future legal career. It’s been an awesome experience to open my eyes to the issues and current crisis we’re facing with education in America.”
An Edmond, Oklahoma, native, Baker teaches second grade in Oklahoma City at Coolidge Elementary, a Title I school where 100 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Teach for America regularly places its teachers in low-income, high-risk areas to help provide educational equity for the children there. Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation for education, and its schools and teachers are continually facing budget cuts.
“Every day I teach these amazing students, and I’ve seen how much they deserve that they’re not getting,” Baker says. “Being here has been an important lesson for me and led me to be an advocate for education equity.”
Baker will begin law school at the University of Oklahoma this fall, and she’s very much what one might expect of a future law student. She’s smart, well spoken and incredibly passionate about the issues that matter most to her. But it’s also clear within minutes of talking to her that she isn’t in it for the prestige, power or even the job title. She’s in it to make a difference in whatever way she can.
“All of the areas of law I’ve looked into specializing in have been impacted by my time with Teach for America,” she says. “I’ve looked into education law because of the great need for that. I also work with a predominately Hispanic population, so that’s made me interested in immigration law as well. My goal in this field is to use my knowledge of the law and our legal system to advocate and protect vulnerable subsets of our nation’s population.”
As passionate as Baker is about her future in law, she’s equally passionate about her students.
“To date, the achievement I am proudest of is the work I am doing through Teach for America,” she says. “Every day, I have the opportunity to support the most deserving students in their academic journeys.”
Baker says she has a million different stories she’ll take with her when she leaves teaching, but she always gravitates toward two students in particular. The students, both on the autism spectrum, are very different in the areas where they struggle, she says, but she’s watched them make incredible strides.
“My student last year was very excited and happy but struggled with communication,” she says. “At the beginning of the school year, if he needed to go to the bathroom, he’d say, ‘Bathroom, bathroom.’ But by the end of the year, he was saying, ‘Ms. Baker, may I please go to the bathroom?’ He was speaking in full sentences! Just seeing that transition was huge.”
Her student this year, she says, struggles more with emotions and relating his peers. But he’s made amazing gains already.
“Last week, we had music on in the classroom, and he was singing and dancing and having a great time,” she says. “At the beginning of the year, he would sit in the corner and hide. Now here he is, singing and dancing with other students. It’s incredible. It’s been the biggest privilege to have both of them in my class.”
After graduating from Westminster College, Baker, a transnational studies and Spanish major, attended Teach for America’s summer institute, a crash course for non-education majors to learn about teaching and content and behavior management. Although she’s quick to say that it pales in comparison to that of education majors, she recognizes the value in her own ongoing training.
“I just try to take in everything I can and have the mentality that I know, at some point, I will fail at something,” she says. “Whether it’s big or small, it’s going to happen, but what’s important is what I do from that failure. Do I let it destroy me? Do I let it ruin my day? Or do I take it, reflect on it and learn from it to become a better teacher?”
Baker says her classroom is like a family, and it gives her great pride to see her students caring about one another the way she cares about them. It’s the kind of environment she experienced firsthand during her years at Westminster.
“When I came to Westminster, I was super nervous about being at college — excited but really nervous,” she says. “I was very introverted at the time and afraid of getting lost in the crowd. Luckily, within the first few weeks of being there, I got involved in a lot of great organizations, and it changed my entire experience. You’re in a safe environment with people who care about you. I truly found who I was at Westminster.”
While in college, Baker was involved with Kappa Alpha Theta, Student Ambassadors, Student Foundation, Order of Omega, Pi Sigma Alpha and was a Spanish tutor. She built strong friendships during her time there. In fact, she met her fiancé, Andrew Lankford ’14, during their freshman year. They got engaged at last year’s Alumni Weekend.
“He took me back to where we had our first date in Fulton and proposed,” she says. “The whole weekend was full of seeing friends we hadn’t seen in so long, and then this. It was so incredibly thoughtful.”
Baker and Lankford will be married this July. And while Lankford, who also joined Teach for America and currently works as a seventh-grade math teacher in Oklahoma City, decides whether to teach for a third year or enter the corporate world, Baker is enjoying her last semester in her own classroom before she becomes the student again.
“My students have become like my own children, and I care so incredibly much about them, and I’ll miss them terribly,” she says. “Teaching has taught me so much, and it’s given me a better perspective on what’s happening in the real world. I feel ready for law school now because of what I’ve learned here.”