Music is Key to TFA Graduate’s Harmonious Classroom

By James Campbell

Marissa Uchimura combines her love for music and education policy in her new teaching career in Baltimore City via the Teach For America program (TFA) at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

Music has been an important part of Uchimura’s life since preschool when she started playing the piano at the age of 4. Her parents are music professors, as well as professional musicians—her father is a cellist and mother a pianist. In high school, she performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata Number 3 on the NPR program From the Top that features presentations by young classically trained musicians. For her senior-year recital in college, she performed pieces by Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, she double-majored in music and education policy.

Marissa Uchimura
Photo by John Robertson

“I love music, but I didn’t think I could find happiness in making that a lifelong career,” said Uchimura. “The classical music industry is very competitive and on my best day there were a thousand others playing the piano better than me.”

She decided to combine both her passions by incorporating her musical ability in a classroom setting. “I love research, data and achieving tangible results. My goal is to work in an educational environment where I could have an influence on the issues I am passionate about.”

Her senior thesis was a study of the Metro Nashville public school system. She wrote about its history, how school districts are zoned and how the city came to be as segregated today. She described neighborhoods that are booming and struggling. She sees many of the same patterns of segregation in Baltimore as in Nashville.

While working on her thesis, she realized that to be successful as a researcher in education policy she would need classroom experience. “I don’t think I could really understand what is going on in schools if I don’t teach and learn what it’s like working at the ground level.”

Uchimura, recently accepted into TFA, is one of 97 new members assigned to schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County this academic year. TFA recruits graduates from some of the nation’s leading universities who want to serve students in poor urban and rural school systems.

In a partnership stretching back to 1999, TFA members also have the opportunity to earn their master’s degree in education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. More than 1,100 TFA alumni have received degrees from the School of Education. “The possibility of coming to Baltimore and getting a master’s degree from a top-ranked university, like Johns Hopkins, was a major appeal of the program,” she said.

Baltimore was high on Uchimura’s list of desired locations for another reason. In high school, she was part of an exchange program between her church in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Amazing Grace Lutheran in East Baltimore. She spent a week each summer in Baltimore doing community service, such as home repairs, community cleanup and summer-school tutoring with local church members.

“Baltimore really grew on me during those visits. I saw the city through the eyes of the pastor and the congregation, most of whom had a great love for the city. I was excited to learn that I would be teaching there.”

After joining TFA, Uchimura completed an intensive teacher-training program this past summer in Philadelphia. The experience included teaching reading to eighth-graders during summer school.

“The training was intense; it felt like boot camp,” she said. “While I was teaching during the day, I was constantly getting feedback on my instruction and what I needed to work on. In the evenings, we would write our lesson plans for the following week. The expectations were very high, but I learned a lot.”

This was followed by further TFA training in Baltimore and a weeklong orientation for new teachers led by veteran teachers in Baltimore City schools. During the New Teacher Summer Institute, Uchimura collaborated with other new English teachers across the district to discuss curriculum, lesson plans, learning activities and other teaching tools.

Last month, she started her teaching career at the REACH! Partnership High School in the northeast part of the city. She is teaching 10th-grade English and has four classes a day. There are five first-year teachers at her school, including one other TFA corps member. She finds the staff, veteran teachers and school leadership welcoming, supportive and willing to offer advice.

When she was first hired, the principal, noting her musical background, asked if she would be interested in developing a music program. She is considering either helping to form a choir or band when she gets settled into her teaching position.

“The school has a great visual arts program and instructor, but none for music,” said Uchimura. “I know there’s a lot of interest and it’s something I am looking forward to doing. Right now, I’m thinking of bringing a keyboard to class and using it in some of my lessons. I want my students to know that music has been a huge part of my life. “

Uchimura is also working on her master’s degree in educational studies at the School of Education. She finds her instructors, who have extensive teaching experience, to be knowledgeable and supportive. Her courses include classroom management and instructional planning. “The information I’m receiving in both courses is very helpful and relates directly to my classroom experience.”