Teach For America New Jersey, 2005
Consulting Teacher, School District of Philadelphia
After a last-minute career change, Meredith Buse found herself at the front of her first classroom of students in Camden, New Jersey. A first-time educator with Teach For America, she had found her true calling. And for the past 10 years she’s been blazing a trail through Philly schools.
Noticing the cultural isolation diverse groups of students often face in their classrooms—and finding it not unlike her own childhood experience—Buse learned she could use her influence over the classroom environment to incorporate creative ways for a diverse class of students to feel equally at home in their education, no matter their race, ethnicity, background, or ability.
Now, as a highly successful teacher, having won the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching for the 2021 to 2022 school year, she’s preparing to spread that knowledge as a coach of new teachers in Philadelphia public schools. Her vision? That all Philly students can learn in an environment where they, and every other student in the classroom, feel at home.
Realizing Her Influence
Before she dreamed of making the classroom a place of acceptance and affirmation, Buse was in school for journalism at Northwestern University. She discovered three years in that journalism wasn’t the right match, wanting to pursue long-term goals instead of tackling a new assignment every day.
By joining Teach For America, Buse was able to make a quick change and get her teaching degree without having to start a new track at school. Plus, she says, it allowed her to begin teaching in the classroom right away. “That’s a big part of why I went through Teach For America,” she says.
Buse’s personal experience as a student has always fueled her passion for making students feel at home. But at first, when she started teaching in Camden, her mission was slightly different from the one she pursues today.
Growing up in New Mexico among non-Asian peers, and Asian peers who had Asian families, she often felt out of place as a Korean-American adoptee. “I just couldn’t relate to [the other students] in that way,” she says. But when she left home for college, the pressure to fit in stayed behind. So, at the time, she had decided that she wanted every young person to have that opportunity: “With Teach For America, it was all about college access for me.”
Then, after two years with TFA in Camden and a few years at a charter school in Chicago, her focus began to shift. She saw a more immediate problem: Like her younger self, many of her students weren’t seeing themselves reflected in their classrooms.
Her students came from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and spoke countless different languages. “Sometimes I have as many as six or seven home languages spoken in a class of kids in front of me,” she says. In Philly schools, English is the primary language in music, on posters, in books, and throughout the curriculum—she began to get the sense that some students felt intimidated and, not unlike herself at that age, alone.
So, instead of just helping them reach the freedom of college later, she wanted to meet students where they are now and make their everyday classroom experience welcoming and affirming so that they could be comfortable and successful each day, semester, and year leading up to their graduation. “So my mission really isn’t about just getting kids to college,” she says. “It’s about seeing people.” With creativity and empathy guiding her, that’s what she set out to do.
Impact in the Classroom and Beyond
Making each unique student feel at home in the classroom requires going above and beyond standard teacher duties. For Buse, the goal was to make sure every student could regularly see themselves reflected in the classroom, and she makes a conscious effort every day to assure that.
Languages, Buse says, are an important place to start. After learning what languages her students spoke at home, she would play music in those different languages in the morning. “They would hear it, and they’d have this moment of recognition,” she says. Then, she and her students would share a moment of affirmation: “‘I see you, and I see you seeing me,’” says Buse.
She also chose books in the students’ home languages, incorporated math lessons where they could teach the class how to count in their native language, and displayed posters of heroes and influencers of color like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on the walls. When she did so, students would come in to look at them. “They liked being in the space, but in a new way,” she says.
Beyond representing different cultures in the classroom, Buse also finds it equally crucial that families at home feel affirmed. “All these different families come from all these different places, different life experiences, different world experiences,” she says. “They should feel comfortable sending their kids to me, because I’m not enforcing racist cultural norms.”
She found creative ways to build that trust, like translating notes that went home to families. She also switched the language that appeared first, so they didn’t sense a language hierarchy where English was king. “It’s so small, but I do think that it’s something that was noticed by the families,” she says.
Buse grew to employ those inclusive practices over the past 18 years, with TFA giving her the chance to start as soon as she felt the calling, and now she’s helped hundreds of students feel at home in the classroom every day. Now, she’s moving on to something new: coaching teachers who are brand new to the Philadelphia school district.
A lesson she hopes to impart on her new peers: the importance of empathy and understanding. She says it’s essential that families know you share the same hopes for their children: love of learning, success, and pursuit of passion. “It’s about working with your kids and families,” she says, “partnering as opposed to parachuting in and parachuting out.”
Although it’s a new chapter for Buse, it’s one that will allow her to spread her wealth of knowledge and breadth of experience to Philadelphia’s public school teachers, and hopefully bring that sense of belonging to every classroom. “We want your kids to love school, and love learning,” she says.