“Education is one of the most important and influential ways to change the world,” says UVM middle level education senior Camilla Thomassen-Tai. Knowing that young adolescence can be a very challenging time, she wants to make a difference in the lives of students in this age group.
“Middle school was really difficult for me,” she says, remembering that the struggles were connected to her school environment. “Fortunately, I transferred to a different school. That, along with my experience in high school, showed me that school could be a very positive experience.”
Spending her first year of college at a small school in Maine, Camilla began to think about the possibility of a career in education. But she felt the need to take a gap year before making a full commitment. It was the right choice. During that time, she spent two months working with middle schoolers in South Africa, and that experience solidified her decision to pursue a career in teaching.
“I knew that UVM had well-established programs in teacher education.” She was also aware that UVM students "learn by doing," engaging extensively in a variety of practical experiences to hone their craft before entering the profession.
“From the very first semester, I was in the classroom at least once a week at Edmunds School in Burlington. It was fascinating to see progressive education that we'd been learning about in class enacted in real life. And everyone was so friendly. Students in the school were so excited to see us."
Now a senior, Camilla has a placement for two days a week in Chris Magistrale's classroom at Winooski Middle School. Magistrale is a graduate of UVM's Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Middle Level Education program, and serves as a mentor teacher for UVM student field placements. “I’ll have a full-time internship in the spring semester,” says Camilla with anticipation. “Winooski is an amazing environment. Now that I’m there, I want to be there all the time. The cultural diversity is amazing, a very enriching experience.”
In her Junior year, Camilla and fellow students in her middle level education cohort began exploring Place-Based Learning, seeing first-hand how it was being implemented in a variety of creative ways at several local schools. “It’s really about involving students with the community, taking students outside of the classroom,” she explains. “It means making curriculum authentic and relevant.”
Connections are strong between students in her cohort. She describes them as kind-hearted, caring, and passionate about education. “We’ve become really close, even more than I would have expected. My advisor Ken Reissig took us to the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Conference in Providence, Rhode Island last year, which was a great bonding experience. This year, we will attend the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) Conference in Nashville, Tennessee."
Faculty in the program serve as outstanding mentors and also a source of inspiration, she feels. “They are especially good at modeling, and they have great energy. All of my professors have been amazing.”
What Camilla finds particularly unique about the program is the attention to the individual student. “The program is so focused on equitable teaching, individualized learning, and social-emotional learning,” she explains. “It strikes a really good balance. We have a proficiency-based system in Vermont, and a progressive mindset about education. We’re preparing students to be proficient citizens, not just to ace tests.”
After growing up in a small town in Maine, she appreciates the cultural diversity of the local community. Last semester, she volunteered at Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, working with children in a newcomer classroom of recent immigrants and refugees learning English.
On campus, Camilla enjoys opportunities to engage in student-led clubs and activities. She is the captain of the women’s club volleyball team, and an active member of the Asian Student Union.
Although she doesn’t have a car, that hasn’t stopped her from experiencing all that Burlington has to offer. “I’m loving the food scene here, experiencing cuisines I’ve never tried before. Working in a local restaurant also helps me connect with different spheres of people. It’s a sweet community.”
Knowing there will be many options available after UVM, Camilla plans to teach internationally for a few years. “It will be a good way of broadening my perspective and developing my practice and how I think about my students,” she says. Possible destinations include East and Southeast Asia, as well as southern and western Africa.
After that, she plans to return to the U.S. and immerse herself into a school community as an educator for many years.
“I’m feeling confident that teaching is what I want to do, and there’s always a market for this profession. Everybody wants to make a difference, and fortunately, this field is a really good fit for me. I feel grateful that I have an opportunity to give what I have to the field of education.”