Breakthrough Silicon Valley Class of 2017
UC Berkeley, Class of 2021, Mathematics
Jessica Cheng understands the struggles facing low-income students who are among the first in their families to aim toward college. Like the students in her Breakthrough Silicon Valley summer classroom, she was once a Breakthrough middle school student herself – a painfully shy one. She often felt unsure of her abilities and was hesitant to raise her hand in class. If you ask about her most significant accomplishment during high school, even as an academic high-achiever, she says simply, “finding my voice.”
Now, as a Breakthrough teaching fellow, Jessica pays close attention to the quiet students. She says her own Breakthrough experience transformed her into the confident young woman who heads to UC Berkeley as a math major in Fall 2017. Her Breakthrough teachers recognized her tremendous potential, and now she is doing the same for her own students.
Power of a Near-Peer
Jessica appreciates the power of the “near-peer” connection she enjoys with her students. Being close in age means there’s a special trust that allows her to push them to take important risks in their learning. “Breakthrough students see their teaching fellows as cool. We’re on really friendly terms,” she says, “but we’re older, so we also get a lot of respect.”
In her 7th grade math class, Jessica teaches students much like the one she was six years ago. She relates to their challenges and understands the support they need. She sees herself not only as a teacher, but a role model. “I like helping students with subjects I struggled with in school. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to empower students – to help them believe in themselves and their own abilities to learn.”
Discovering her Passion
Jessica discovered her budding passion for teaching at Breakthrough. She says, “It’s one of the only summer opportunities where you actually work as a teacher – making your own lesson plans and teaching them. To prepare to teach, you need to practice. We get to do that, and with lots of help to better our skills.” Breakthrough teaching fellows learn practical tools and techniques, and try them out every day, guided by professional mentor teachers at each step of the way.
Some days are hard, she admits. But the moments when understanding clicks for a student, make every challenge worthwhile. What drives her is the inspiration she draws from her students. “Remembering the aspirations of these first-generation students, who are so similar to me, reminds me that education is truly empowering – that’s why I want to keep spreading that empowerment as a teacher in the future.”