By Annie Rhoades
Students majoring in education look forward to their first day of teaching, but few begin their career with the support of a teaching fellowship worth $175,000.
Alumna Jessica Fancher Peralta (BAEd 13), recipient of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellowship, is the first Mississippian to be awarded the fellowship.
“I kind of freaked out when I received the call that I had gotten the fellowship,” said Peralta. “It’s a really long process. I wasn’t going to apply at the beginning when my advisor [Dr. Allan Bellman] told me about it. He said it’s a one-in-a-million shot, but I had everything they were looking for so I might as well try. He also said that nobody from Mississippi had ever gotten it before, and that I would gain all of these really great experiences if I was chosen.”
A native of Mooreville, Peralta graduated from Mooreville High School in 2009 with her sights initially set on a career in pharmacy.
“When I came to Ole Miss I started out in the early entry pharmacy program because that’s what a lot of people expected of me,” said Peralta. “But still in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to become a teacher, and I only stayed in that program for the first semester then switched to education.”
Having a passion for education, particularly mathematics, from an early age Peralta knew that’s where she belonged, but her decision to pursue a career as a teacher was met with some adversity.
“Anytime I talked about being a teacher people would say things like you don’t want to do that, you’re not going to make any money or it’s not good enough,” said Peralta. “I think I’m trying to prove to people that teaching is certainly a worthwhile profession, and it’s something to be admired – not looked down upon.”
And prove them wrong she has.
The prestigious Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) awarded 32 beginning high school STEM teachers with five-year fellowships in 2014 designed to help them become master teachers and leaders. These “backbone” teachers reach thousands of students each year, take on leadership roles improving math and science education from the classroom and strengthen the teaching profession.
“I knew this would be a great support system,” said Peralta. “The majority of teachers end up changing their career within their first five years. The fellowship is here to support people who are really good at what they do and encourage them to keep doing it. Working with the communities [KSTF] has developed is really impressive. I just got back from orientation so I’m still learning a lot about it.”
According to KSTF the national average teacher retention rate is just 54 percent after the first five years. However, nearly 90 percent of the teachers in the fellowship program remain in the classroom after five years.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on teachers right now to improve, to achieve and to perform well on all of these standardized tests,” said Peralta. “In a lot of school systems there’s not a whole lot of support for beginning teachers. Schools are trying to provide that support now, but I think a lot of times you feel like you’re out there on your own with this huge task at hand to teach 100 kids or more every day. You’re responsible for their growth as human beings, and without support that’s really tough.”
Peralta will begin teaching Algebra I and Geometry at Oxford High School in August, and couldn’t be more excited to implement new ideas and teaching methods.
“OHS is going One to One with technology next year, so all of the students are going to have a MacBook,” said Peralta. “I’m really excited about that because I had the opportunity to work with a lot of technology this past year through my masters program. I’m hoping the students really like it too. I have a lot of ideas I’m ready to test out.”
While Peralta is excited about new technology, the relationship she forms with her students is the most rewarding part of her job.
“The students teach you so much,” said Peralta. “You think you’re there to teach them, but I think everyone has something to learn from everyone else. It’s really cool to be a part of that learning environment. I think my job is just to help all of the students in my classroom improve and grow, not just academically, but as a person as well. I want to build a classroom community where everyone is respectful of each other, and we can share ideas and learn from each other without feeling judged.”
Peralta is certain that she would not be where she is today without the influence of two of her professors and the mathematics education program the university offers.
“Dr. Allan Bellman and Joel Amidon are two really great professors who I think will influence me in my teaching,” said Peralta. “There are a lot of exciting changes going on in the math education program at the university, and it was really special to me to be a part of. I would not be where I am without the program here. I think we all end up where we’re supposed to be, and I was definitely supposed to be at Ole Miss.”