Daniel Koh

My summer Breakthrough

How a summer teaching fellowship helped Daniel Koh discover his career in advocacy—as a middle school teacher.

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I started to really worry on the third day that one of my students didn’t show up. It was my second summer at the Breakthrough Houston summer teaching fellows program, and my first in a leadership position. I was excited to return to the program because I knew that Breakthrough students were motivated, and I was excited by the opportunity to help them on their path to college. So, when my student stopped coming to class, I had reason to be concerned.

After days of worrying, our Program Director broke the news. Over the previous weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had conducted raids in Houston in search of undocumented immigrants and their families. My missing student would not be returning. 

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A force for social justice

The news cast a pall over the whole program. Classes adjusted to account for smaller rosters. Cheers and chants fell flat. The ongoing situation, which had seemed distant on social media and the news, was present and demanded our immediate attention.

To support our students, we led difficult conversations, both individually and in class. I sent my students home with pamphlets about what to do in case of an encounter with ICE. In my ELA department, we rewrote lessons to read relevant pieces of literature and write to process the situation.

Daniel Koh talking with students at their desks

It was our responsibility as teaching fellows to create safe classrooms, in which we could fulfill the roles of confidants, emotional supporters, liaisons, translators, and advisors.

My time at Breakthrough was my first experience of teaching as a force for social justice. I discovered that teaching aligns with my skill set and allows me to advocate for justice directly.

Before I even considered education as a career path, my time at Rice University had already convinced me that merely securing my own financial future would feel empty so long as most Americans are unable to do the same. 

Through Breakthrough, I found my career

My experience at Breakthrough Houston is the reason I decided to be a teacher. I had always known that I wanted to work with people. Even so, I took it for granted that I would pursue something more financially rewarding than teaching. After leaving my homogeneous hometown to go to college, I also became passionate about advocacy and justice. Still, I felt pressured to consider fields I felt other people would consider more prestigious.

Yet, I experienced the most joy and fulfillment when I was working with students. Only after Breakthrough did I realize that teaching most closely aligned with both my passion for advocacy and with my passion for working with students.

My experience at Breakthrough also encouraged me to challenge the narrow-minded emphasis on prestige I had internalized from my family and peers.

Daniel Koh in front of the class

Breakthrough was a holistic teaching experience, albeit a shortened one. From lesson planning, to cross-department collaboration, to the classroom experience itself, Breakthrough emphasizes developing concrete skills and effective teaching. Working with a department under an instructional coach gave me a support system with which I could collaborate and receive feedback.

When I begin applying for a full-time teaching job, I will prioritize a supportive administration and culture of collaboration because of Breakthrough.

It starts with a single classroom

Since my time at Breakthrough, I began working towards my teaching certificate through the Rice undergraduate program. As an educator, I want to help empower teachers and students to advocate for themselves and the issues that affect them directly. I plan to support and sponsor collaborative organizations of students across different schools. I hope to create curriculum for teachers to give students the tools they need to start conversations of their own with policymakers.

Most importantly, my goal is to leave a legacy of positive change in education, even if it starts with a single classroom.

The week after my students had to leave Breakthrough, I asked if there was anything we could do. The Program Director encouraged me to use my class reminder app to tell them (and all my students) that we would always be someone safe to ask for help. As a teacher, I will always challenge myself to be a better advocate because I wish there was more that I could have done. 

Every so often, I’ll pull up the old reminder app to send encouragement and advice to my Breakthrough students. I just hope it’s reaching all of them okay.

Daniel Koh headshot

Are you ready to discover your career?

Through a summer teaching experience, Daniel discovered that teaching aligns with his passions and allows him to advocate for justice directly.  

If you're thinking about becoming an educator, there are plenty of opportunities—both paid and volunteer—to try teaching. Find opportunities for high school students, undergraduates and graduates, here

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