Outside Daniel Velasco ’13’s classroom window at the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Ind., stands an abandoned building with boarded up windows. But the view doesn’t bother Velasco — his focus is on his students, not his surroundings.
“I absolutely love all of my students, even those that make me want to pull my hair out,” Velasco said with a chuckle. “The greatest lesson I have learned from them is patience.”
This is Velasco’s third year at the charter school. During his first two, he taught full time as a Teach for America fellow. Velasco taught AP United States history, AP world history, economics, government, and world history. He has also tried to build relationships with his students, and to connect with them as a mentor.
“When I teach my kids, stay after school with them, and host tutoring sessions during breaks, I think about the teachers that did that for me,” he said.
After completing his two-year Teach for America commitment, Velasco decided to stay at the 21st Century Charter School as a mentor teacher. In this role, he continues to teach half time, and he also serves as a building leader. Although he is young, he has considerable responsibility at the school. He works closely with two building administrators and 25 teachers.
In the mornings, Velasco teaches economics and government classes to 12th graders. In the afternoons, he observes teachers in their classrooms and gives them feedback in order to help them improve their teaching style and instruction.
“Life as a teacher is both draining and rewarding,” he said. “My life is completely different than when I was at Princeton, because I no longer have just my education and my future to worry about, but also my students’.”
Velasco’s own education was global. He’s a city-loving, second-generation Mexican Midwesterner who was born and raised in Chicago. He spent much of his time at Princeton — well, not at Princeton.
As an East Asian studies major, Velasco fell in love with the language and culture of Japan, endlessly shuffling decks of vocabulary flashcards and working through difficult grammar. He spent one semester and two summers in Japan, and participated in the Princeton in Ishikawa program. In his junior year, Velasco was selected to be an undergraduate fellow at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. This support enabled him to conduct senior thesis research in Japan.
“I would even call Japan a second home,” Velasco said with a smile. “I was able to form very strong bonds with my host family. I visited them every year for three years.”
Velasco also studied Chinese, through the Princeton in Beijing summer program, and he considered moving abroad after graduation. He knew that he wanted to teach and mentor high school students; at Princeton, he frequently volunteered at Community House’s After School Academy (CHASA), and he worked as a tutor at Princeton High School.
Velasco considered teaching in Japan or participating in the Princeton in Asia fellowship program, but he eventually realized that he wanted to return to the Midwest after graduation.
“After a lot of thought,” he said, “I felt that my impact would be greatest working with students who I related to, in neighborhoods similar to those I grew up in.”
Velasco remembers feeling “very apprehensive at first” when he started working in Gary, but now, he feels fortunate to be part of a “close-knit community” of parents, teachers, and students at the charter school. His journey wasn’t easy. He recalls working between 13 and 15 hours per day in his first year, while also completing certification courses in order to earn his teaching license in Indiana.
“During my first year of teaching, I wanted to quit,” he admits. “Teaching is not something for the faint of heart. It requires serious dedication, mental strength, and a thick skin.”
But his hard work paid off. After his first year of teaching, Velasco was nominated and selected as a finalist for Teach for America’s Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award.
Teaching can be stressful, Velasco said. But, he adds quickly, “The relationships I have formed with my students and the impact I have had on them are well worth it. Teaching is oftentimes a thankless job, but for those brave souls that want to teach, I say, ‘Give it your all!’ ”