Physics Teacher, Opelousas High School
Biology and Classics Double Major
The first month Krista Nieraeth '04 taught at Opelousas High School in rural
Louisiana, she had to jump on lab tables to get her students to pay attention
"I really didn't know what I was doing," she remembers.
But Nieraeth, a new teacher working through Teach for America (TFA), an organization that strives to end educational inequality by placing teachers in low-income communities, had to overcome more than her personal learning curve as a teacher. Opelousas High School, like many other high schools participating in TFA, had minimal teaching resources and even less money to buy them.
"I had nothing that a modern physics classroom should have," she says.
That's when she turned to her alma mater.
Nieraeth came to Knox knowing that she wanted to go to medical school and pursued a double major in biology and classics.
"I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, to help people. Medical school seemed like a great fit."
But when she was a junior, she saw a notice for TFA on a bulletin board in the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center.
"The mission really appealed to me, and it made me think of new possibilities," she says.
Once she was actually teaching in Louisiana, Nieraeth wasn't shy about asking her former Knox professors for help, particularly Judy Thorn, assistant professor of biology, and Larry Welch, professor of chemistry. Her efforts paid off.
In September 2004, Professor Thorn called Nieraeth with a special offer -- Thorn had received a stipend from a teaching award and offered to use it, along with a matching personal donation, to buy needed supplies for Nieraeth's classroom.
"Having taught someplace where I had to photocopy rulers for students to use, my heart went out to anyone in a similar situation," says Thorn.
"She blew my mind," says Nieraeth of Thorn, who donated computer software and a frictionless table, among other things. "When I told my principal about the donation, he simply asked, 'What type of school did you go to?'"
In March 2005, Nieraeth received another surprise -- a box from the Knox chemistry department showed up in her school's office. It contained three hot-stir plates that the Knox chemistry department had recently replaced.
"Krista is going to help her students so much that I wanted to help her succeed," says Larry Welch. "I thought donating the equipment was nothing but a good deal for everyone involved."
Thanks to the donations of her former professors, Nieraeth is now able to teach basic physics and chemistry to her students, and she credits her alma mater for her good fortune.
"You may be out in the real world, but you still have the support of the Knox community," she says. "It gives you more courage to go out and do things, such as join TFA or move to Louisiana."
Now that her first year as a physics teacher with TFA is complete, Nieraeth feels like she finally has a knack for teaching.
"I like being able to see that my students leave school with a smile on their faces because they learned something that day. I really feel like I'm doing something productive."