“In high school, I enjoyed helping my peers during math class.”
Ericka Willacy had a gift for teaching long before she pursued a path in education. “Many of my peers would tell me that I could be the teacher. There was always this sense of gratification when I helped my peers and they gained an understanding for a particular topic.”
Ericka graduated from the NYU Teacher Residency in June 2020. While she always felt a calling to teach math, after college Ericka sought a different professional route. “I ended up in a really good customer service job for a hospital. It had benefits, pension, and decent pay. I did this for six years.”
Ericka explained that few people opted to leave this work because it was stable, especially for someone like her who had to juggle other life demands such as being a mom to two children. But Ericka knew she had to go after her dream.
“I tried to find a program where I could complete my master’s and still be able to work. I’m a mom, so I needed something to fit that life scenario.”
Ericka decided to look for a program with an online component that would help her get a master’s, learn a new profession, and find balance with home life. The Teacher Residency was exactly that – one year of study with rigorous course work and on-the-ground experience.
She still had trepidations, though: “I was nervous because I was leaving my job of six years and was not sure if this would work due to my home life. I knew this would not be an easy adjustment and transition.” However, she pushed on because she was confident she had found the right program.
Finding a knack for math
Ericka loved math as far back as elementary school. She recalled her math courses were always a grade level above her class. Even before high school, she shared her gifts with fellow students. “As a child, I would forfeit my lunch and recess to go to Grade 1 and 2 classes to help them with their math skills.”
When Ericka got to high school, she was bored and ahead of most people at her grade level. That’s when she started to help out her friends. “I just used my time to help my friends. They would say to me, ‘You teach this so much better than the teacher.’ I would feel so good when they would understand a concept. I think that’s what made me want to teach math.”
Breaking math stereotypes
This interest in math followed Ericka all the way to college where she obtained a bachelor of arts in math. College confirmed her love of the subject, and she intended to enter the education program during junior year to begin the five-year master’s program, but life got in the way. It would be a bit longer before Ericka found her way to teaching math. Though she did identify a new conviction in college: to shatter stereotypes.
“You do not find a lot of math majors. On top of that, you don’t find a lot of female math majors. And then, on top of that, you don’t find African American math majors. I wanted to break those barriers.”
Ericka thought there was a need to change the stigma that math is hard and not fun. She wanted students to see that everyone can do math. “I wanted to teach math because math is universal. People miss that point sometimes.”
Now, as a high school educator, she witnesses how important math is for resilience. “It’s very important to get our upcoming generations to understand that just because something comes off as difficult, you don’t have to throw it away. Math doesn’t just teach numbers. It teaches life skills like learning to persevere and to make an effort especially when things are tough. It also teaches you that making a mistake is okay.”
Knowing math versus teaching math
“In the Teacher Residency, the fact that you implement what you learn at the same time is genius.” Ericka found significant value in the immersive, hands-on model. “I learned from people and literally took what they did and implemented it immediately in the classroom. They taught me real scenarios, which made it easy to practice because the lessons were all grounded in real examples.”
“I knew math, but I did not know how to teach it! I could teach someone how to solve something, but to teach the concept behind the equation and relate the concepts to real-world situations was not what I knew how to do. The Teacher Residency showed me how to teach the content in different ways to facilitate a learning experience for all learners.”
The Teacher Residency helped Ericka gain a deep understanding of how to meet every child where they are, no matter their ability level: something she could not have accomplished without the proper preparation.
NYU Steinhardt faculty taught her the importance of delivering content in different ways to facilitate a positive learning experience for all types of learners. “We learned a lot about the type of learners you may come across in any classroom today.”
“When I compare when I was in school to current times, there are more students now who have individualized education programs (IEPs). A lot of students get the back seat because of these IEPs. The Teacher Residency focused on how to evaluate a student’s learning abilities and not leave them behind.”
Ericka underscored how she plans to approach students’ academic and social-emotional needs. “You cannot have one path. You have to look for a way that works for the student with autism, a student who is new to this country, a student who is homeless, or the student who is shy.”
Inspiring and preparing a new generation
What began for Ericka as a love for math has transcended into a belief that when someone teaches, they play an important role in the formation of empowered, smart societies.
“We’re creating agents of change in their [students’] communities. I feel I’m being given this opportunity to impact those who will be leading us very soon.”
For people who want to pursue a career in teaching, Ericka said the Teacher Residency’s immersive experience often does not exist in other teacher preparation programs. “You get feedback on a regular basis; feedback from peers and content professors all help you better work with students. After you’ve tried to implement, you can see what works and what doesn’t.” She built knowledge of the pedagogical side of teaching, such as proven instructional practices, and the relational side of being an educator, where connecting with and inspiring students matters so greatly.
“This journey in the Teacher Residency is not for the smartest person in the room or the fastest learner but meant for the one who can endure to the end. All that is required is an open mind and a drive to make a difference in the lives of the upcoming generations.”
“Have a drive! It’s a matter of knowing your ‘why.’ Remember this and remind yourself of it every so often. Remember why you are doing it.”