Teach for America educator profile: Conner Vanden Hoek

Conner Vanden Hoek

Conner Vanden Hoek is a 2020 Teach for America RGV Corps member teaching 12th-grade government and economics at Donna High School.

What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?

From an early age, I noticed that the kids down the street looked different from my mostly white classmates. It did not take long for me to realize that kids in other areas of town lived a far different world than I did. I grew up hearing statistic after statistic about how education inequity meant that some kids got access to technology and a quality education, while others didn’t. I wrote papers and made presentations about the issue, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t going to be enough to give kids the better opportunities they deserved. I knew there was something more I could do. From then on, I’ve lived by my faith that if education becomes truly equitable across all races, incomes, or zip codes, then everyone can receive the same opportunities that I have had. But faith without works is dead. Teach for America provides me with the chance to put that faith into practice.

Growing up in the suburbs of North Texas, I knew admittingly little about the Valley. It wasn’t until college when I met folks from here that I got my first glimpse of the area. On my first day of college orientation, I met two Valley natives who shared stories of the terrific food and the vibrant culture. They spoke of the closeness of the community with pride, but they also shared the struggles that students face here. When the opportunity with Teach For America came around, it was a no-brainer. I knew I had to come here.

What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is all the hats you truly wear in the classroom. Being a teacher requires the skills of many other professions. I am an actor who plays out characters in history and conveys a positive attitude even if my lesson doesn’t go as planned. I am a comedian telling jokes to try and make lessons more interesting. I am a psychologist who is constantly checking in with my students during this stressful time. I am a life coach who works to motivate and help my students achieve their goals both inside and outside of the classroom. The most important hat I wear is that of an advocate. I am constantly working to make sure that my students’ needs are met because I want them to get the most out of their final year in high school. All of these different hats are required to be a quality educator, and I wear them all with pride.

If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?

I want my students to know they have a seat at the table. This past presidential election presented many opportunities in our government class to discuss the importance of being civically engaged. Consequently, I felt an increased sense of responsibility to create a classroom culture where my students could understand that their voice is their power. I would tell them that, no matter what they do in life, each and every one of them has something to offer their community. Furthermore, I work to help my students understand that this ability to be a force of change in the community is also a responsibility. I tell them constantly that democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires our active participation. If they leave my class feeling confident that their voice matters, I know I have something to be proud of.

What lessons are you learning now that will help you continue to work toward educational equity in the future?

For education to be effective, it requires constant re-evaluation and innovation. This pandemic has exposed several inefficiencies that have existed in our education system for decades. Policies and practices that should have been discarded years ago have now been proven ineffective. Even the most experienced teachers are having to adapt and reevaluate the way they teach.

I have learned that improvement means using what you have, not reinventing the wheel. Something as simple as greeting students at the start of a virtual meeting or changing a virtual background to a fun background can vastly improve a digital classroom environment. The lessons I have already learned about how to innovate the classroom experience are tools I will continue to use in championing education equity.

Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?

As someone who teaches high school seniors, I get the last real chance to leave them with a positive impression of education before they go out into the “real world.” I ask about their aspirations after graduation and try to connect them with the resources and information to help them achieve their goals. Most of my students want to attend college, but tell me they cannot go because the cost is so prohibitive. They tell me that despite there being tuition waivers for economically disadvantaged students, there are other expenses related to the cost of living that they’re worried about.

I spoke with my colleagues about this issue, and as it turns out, an opportunity opened up for me to be the treasurer of a scholarship. Each year, the social studies department aims to awad two $500 scholarships for students majoring in social studies-related fields, like psychology, sociology, and government. This is an achievable goal, but we don’t want to stop at two. It is no secret that this pandemic has put an economic strain on families already struggling to figure out how to finance a college degree. With the Rio Grande Valley ranking with one of the lowest percentages of Bachelor’s Degree holders, most of my students will be the first in their family to attend college. The financial strain of college makes it seem like an option. However, I can say with absolute confidence that our students are more than capable of succeeding when given the chance. My hope is that with the generosity of neighbors and strangers alike, this scholarship can provide our students with the opportunities they deserve.

If you or an organization feel compelled to donate you can go to our GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/DSSSF) or contact [email protected].

Teach for America (TFA) is the national nonprofit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial two-year commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, 61 corps members work in seven districts across the region.