Growing up in Greenville, N.C., Patrick White was struck by how hard his mom worked as a middle school science teacher. So when he went off to study chemistry and math at NC State, he had no interest in teaching as a possible career.
“I thought the last thing I would do was be a teacher,” he says.
But then life takes some unexpected twists and turns, and one of them for White came in his organic chemistry class at NC State. He worked as a teaching assistant for his professor, Kay Sandberg, and was intrigued with how she incorporated technology in an “outside-the-box” approach. “The teaching method she used got me hooked on being a teacher,” he says. “There is a big need for teachers who want to be innovative.”
White was also a Caldwell Fellow at NC State, and was influenced by a service trip that he took to Mexico to work at an elementary school. He was struck by how eager the students were to learn, even though they had few supplies and their school building was a decrepit mess. “I had a really profound experience there,” he says. “I thought about how privileged my own educational background was.”
So when White graduated from NC State in 2011, he joined Teach for America and was sent to Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn. White initially wondered how much need there was in a place like Connecticut, which he knew primarily as the home to Martha Stewart. But he soon found that there were plenty of students in Connecticut, particularly in urban areas like Bridgeport, who struggled with poverty. “A lot of really wealthy people live here, but there are pockets of urban students who live in severe poverty and are severely underachieving,” he says.
White was hired to teach ninth-grade math, but his initial assessment of his students found that they were, on average, at a fifth-grade level in math. “I very quickly encountered students who wanted nothing to do with me,” he says. “They had been in a system so long that didn’t support their education. I thought I would come in and have this magical moment. But I had no idea what I was doing. I really struggled learning just how to teach, with a group of students who I didn’t relate to at all.”
But magic sometimes happens in small doses, and White took advantage of the fact that his class met in a computer lab. He used technology to reach different students at different levels, and built his own curriculum using the online resources available at the Kahn Academy. By the end of White’s first year, his students had, on average, increased their math level by a year-and-a-half. It wasn’t, as White notes, life-changing progress. But it was progress.
“You have to celebrate everything that goes well,” he says. “For the things that don’t go well, you have to constantly look for solutions.”
White was helped by other teachers at his school, including several who were also part of the Teach for America program, as well as the staff of Teach for America. “I never felt I was by myself,” he says.
One of the victories that stands out from that first year was a student who had broken out in tears when she initially learned that she was at a seventh-grade level in math. By the end of the year, she was at a ninth-grade level. “She just looked at that score, looked at me with a big smile on her face and said, ‘We did it, Mr. White. We did it,'” he recalls.
White admits that there were times when he thought about giving up. But he says his experience as a Caldwell Fellow — and lessons he learned in perseverance and leadership — helped him through the difficult spots. “My experience as a Caldwell Fellow prepared me to do the tough, tough work, pushing through that first year teaching,” he says.
But before that first year was over, White was faced with another challenge. Another teacher, who had been the adviser for the school’s fledgling robotics team, cornered White in the copy room one day and told him that he would have to take over the team next year. She didn’t ask White about taking over — she told him that she was retiring, and that he would take over the team. When White resisted, his colleague convinced him to at least come to a robotics competition.
“It was out-of-this-world cool,” White says. “They were taking this STEM-heavy [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] subject, and making it feel like a varsity sport. There were fans everywhere. It was amazing.”
So White, who had no clue how to build a robot, signed on to lead the Warren Harding High School robotics team. “This is such a powerful tool to show people what urban students are capable of,” he says.
His initial task, as he began his second year of teaching, was to get more kids involved. The robotics club had 3-4 members when White started, but he recruited other kids to bring their membership numbers up to 15. He found a volunteer in the community who could help the kids with computer programming, a nice addition to two volunteers who had been working with the students on the mechanics of building a robot. When they went to a regional competition, the students finished in the middle of the pack of 56 teams. It was the school’s best performance, by far, in such a competition.
In another twist to White’s story, he decided to remain at Warren Harding High School for another year after his two-year commitment to Teach for America was satisfied. “My plan was to do my two years, feel really good about myself, and go on to grad school and get my Ph.D in chemistry,” he says. “But I just wanted to teach here another year. I think I’m good at it now.”
The robotics team had even more success the following year, growing to some 20 students and making it to the finals in two out of three areas at the district finals. The team finished in the top 10 in one area, and started to make a name for itself among other high school robotics teams. “We got a lot of energy from our kids this year,” he says.
But for the team to continue to make progress, White says they need some help. They need money to be able to travel to more competitions, as well as to upgrade some of the equipment in their shop so the kids can create better robots and more kids can get involved.
“We spend a lot of time building this robot, so we want to compete as much as we can,” White says. “It gives us an opportunity to recruit more kids to come to competitions, give them exposure to what STEM is, how it works in the real world. One of the missions of our team is to promote STEM in Bridgeport. It’s assumed our kids can’t do it.”
But White says it’s difficult for the students on his team to raise money. “The area they live in, they are not exposed to a lot of people who have money to spare,” he says. So he has started an effort, through an online crowdfunding site known as Piggybackr, to appeal to others around the country (including some of White’s fellow Wolfpackers) to help the team meet its $5,000 fundraising goal. White had seen the school’s track coach raise money for sports equipment through the site, and figured he would give it a try.
“Why can’t we do that for the nerds in our school, for science and shop equipment?” he asks. “There are people out there who are interested in these things, who want to help.”
The fundraiser ends on May 31, and it is still far short of its $5,000 goal. So White is trying to spread the word, hoping that people will be inclined to help the “Hard Botties,” as the Harding High robotics team is known. To contribute, visit the “Hard Botties” page on Piggybackr.
As for White, he’s about to finish his third year of teaching and is preparing to move on to the next phase of his life. This fall, he will start studying for a master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He says he may eventually return to the classroom, or could look for opportunities to work for a school system or nonprofit organization looking for smart ways to use technology in schools, particularly in urban areas.
But he also plans to stay involved with the robotics team at Harding High School.
“My goal is that this team is around for as long as possible,” he says. “I’ve seen it impact kids in amazing ways, helping them be more invested in school.”