Teach in 12: Pivoting careers and talent where they’re needed – in the classroom


Jessica Ponder (right) left a job as an assistant manager at Schnucks grocery store to pursue teaching, her true calling. (Photos by August Jennewein)

After completing a psychology degree at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2011, Jessica Ponder, like many new graduates, wasn’t certain of her next step – but that all changed when her son was born.

“He’s the reason I decided to go back to school and pursue teaching,” she says. “He was born with Down Syndrome. I felt worried and daunted at first. But then the teachers and therapists really helped me understand some of the things he needs to progress faster. Now I want to give back and help other kids and parents.”


Teach in 12’s first cohort attracted 50 students from a diverse variety of professions who, like Jessica Ponder, wanted to use their professional skills and experience in the classroom.

Fulfilling her desire to nurture the development of early childhood and special needs learners, Ponder is completing her teaching practicum for the College of Education’s new Teach in 12 program.

Launched last spring, the program provides students who hold bachelor’s degrees an accelerated path to Missouri teaching certification. In the span of 12 months, participants complete rigorous course work and serve in schools across the greater St. Louis region.

Ann Taylor, interim dean of the College of Education, sees the program as an opportunity to help aspiring educators smoothly transition into teaching careers while also placing instructors with specialized skill sets into underserved areas.

“My colleagues and I know that schools – especially those in high-need areas – are always seeking teachers, particularly in the areas of science, mathematics, special education and languages,” Taylor says. “We also knew that the population of undergraduates was declining, so in 2014 we redesigned our existing graduate level program to meet the needs of today’s working professionals.”

Accountants, mechanical engineers and even geologists have entered the program with an eye toward using their professional backgrounds to inspire students in the classroom, and Ponder, a former store manager, is no exception. Informed by her studies in psychology, Ponder brings a passion for people and a talent for thoughtful observation to the children at Carver Elementary in St. Louis.

“Teaching requires a lot of listening to what the kids need and trying to figure out their specific learning styles and where they’re at academically and behaviorally,” Ponder says. “You’re always going to have a few children who struggle for the first few weeks of a term, but when they start to get it and understand what is expected of them, it’s great. I love being able to say, ‘Awesome, you did it!’ And it’s wonderful to see them excited about their progress too.”


Jessica Ponder takes pride in giving back to the education system which has helped many young students flourish.

Nancy Singer, chair of the Department of Educator Preparation, Innovation and Research at UMSL, believes that Ponder’s self determination and proven ability to reach students exemplifies why Teach in 12 will help solve local teacher shortages.

“Schools lose good teachers due to burnout during the first few years. But instructors with a stronger professional background or  personal motivation are more likely to have fruitful careers,” Singer says. “When designing the Teach in 12 program, we thought of folks who had opted not to teach when they were undergraduates yet had the disposition and knowledge base to be very successful in a K-12 classroom.”

Singer and Taylor agree that the program’s commitment to preparing educators for sustained success is what attracted a strong pool of applicants like Ponder. The College of Education welcomed more than 50 students into the first Teach in 12 cohort. An additional 85 started this fall, with more incoming students anticipated in the spring.

Beyond accommodating participants with online courses and streamlined completion requirements, the Teach in 12 program will soon expand its offerings by partnering with St. Louis Public Schools to give participants the opportunity to become literacy interventionists, who focus on teaching and improving reading skills.

More than halfway through the program, Ponder intends to take advantage of every chance to grow into her new role as an educator. She hopes to make a difference in the lives of children, especially her son’s.

“I always get great notes and progress reports about things that he is doing at school,” Ponder says. “Once his teacher told me about how he soothes the other students when they throw tantrums. He has really learned a lot of social skills and empathy at school. And I can’t describe how great that is to see.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2016 issue of UMSL Magazine. Have some praise and/or suggestions for UMSL Magazine? Please take the 5 minute 2016 UMSL Magazine Survey.

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