Fellow Q&A: WW-RBF Fellow Shari Berga

Shari Berga poses with the card and balloons her class surprised her with on the first day of school after winter break, which was also her birthday.

Shari Berga poses with the card and balloons her class surprised her with on the first day of school after winter break, which was also her birthday.

The WW-RBF Fellowship was established at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 2009 and was administered by WW from 2010 to 2015. The program aimed to improve the pipeline for teachers of color in the U.S. by providing Fellows with financial support for a master’s degree in education and ongoing mentoring. Shari Berga, a 2010 WW-RBF Fellow, is now in her sixth year of teaching at High Point High School in Beltsville, Maryland. She teaches AP psychology, women’s studies, and world history, and serves on the school’s student management and planning team.

WW Perspectives: With only 18 percent of US teachers identifying as people of color, what do you think it means to be a teacher of color today?

Shari Berga: Being a teacher of color means that you are not only a role model (all teachers are!) but you are also like family to your students. When kids see me, they see their mujeres, their moms, their tantes, and their cousins. They know implicitly that everything I say and do is out of love because I’m not just teaching students, I’m teaching kids that look like me and that could be in my family (I have actually taught members of family!). I’m teaching my people and I’m teaching for my community.

WWP: What made you decide to pursue education as a career?

SB: Prior to going to college, I thought I had gone to a good public school. I was in the leadership program, I felt that I had great teachers, and I got into an elite university. During my first semester at Duke I learned very quickly that all public education is not equal. For the first time in my life, I felt unprepared, although I had been certain that my school had educated me well. This realization motivated me to become a teacher and to teach in a high-need school that offered access to higher level academic programs, similar to the high school that I attended.

WWP: What were the biggest struggles you encountered as a first-year teacher? How did the Fellowship help you prepare for them?

SB: My biggest struggle was finding personal and professional balance. I had a unique experience in that I was in a teacher preparation program in undergrad, so I entered the fellowship certified to teach. However, nothing can prepare you for the emotional drain of the first year of teaching. I was happy in my job, but very tired. It also took me about four months to master classroom management. As I endeavored to create a positive classroom culture and negotiate some sort of balance in my life, my connection to other WW-RBF Fellows advised me and sustained me. I have made lifelong friends and colleagues through this fellowship.

WWP: How did the Fellowship help you develop as a teacher?

SB: One of my favorite components of this fellowship is the National Convenings. Each year that I attend, I learn how to multiply my impact, I sharpen my pedagogical tools, and I leave inspired and empowered to do more for my students.

WWP: How do your life experiences affect your lessons?

SB: I am very open with my students about all aspects of my life. If they ask me a question that seems inappropriate, I either ask them why they want to know, or I respond to them with an answer I would have given as a teenager. I am a mixed child of immigrants and I teach in a school full of immigrant students and first-generation American students. Being bicultural and multiracial, I feel I can relate to them on many levels. My family includes people that practice different faiths. Being what I like to call an Interfaith Christian allows me to share my beliefs and create safe spaces for students to share and explore theirs as well. Finally, in addition to preparing to become a teacher, I also studied cultural anthropology in college. I think all cultures are beautiful, fascinating, and valuable, and I communicate my respect for my students through culturally-relevant pedagogy and equitable classroom policies.

WWP: What is the most rewarding thing for you about teaching? What kind of impact have you seen in your classroom, school, or community?

SB: The most rewarding part of my career is that I get to enact social justice in my classroom every day. I help students think critically about the world. They adopt a stance of inquiry and they are determined to be examples of excellence. I have students who perform poorly in other courses but excel in mine. I have students who do not attend class but show up on time to AP Psychology or Women’s Studies. My kids are engaged because our class is relevant and important to their lives. I am in my sixth year of teaching, so all of my students are still in high school or in the early years of postsecondary education. I cannot wait to see the things they achieve. My students are committed to their people and their communities and they all aspire to careers that serve and help others.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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