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Alumni Feature: Ashley Beck

Art Ed grad devotes career to serving the most underserved students

Growing up in the Bay Area, Ashley Beck was never your typical student; she always wanted to do things differently than instructed. “I would definitely push back against boundaries,” she said. “I worked really well when given a lot of creative freedom.”

Beck’s personal experience sparked an interest from a young age in other students who didn’t fit the mold, whether because of special needs or academic gifts. This inclination, along with the support of her highly creative and service-oriented family, eventually led Beck to teach art in Title I public schools in the District of Columbia, where she has stayed since completing her student teaching in 2013.

Reflecting on her training in the art education program, Beck said, “It was like a really welcoming family, and it felt like a place where I could grow a lot and then also use those tools to turn around and help someone else.”

Beck’s first full-time teaching job after graduation was at an alternative high school for teenagers who had been expelled or who had severe behavioral issues. From there she transferred to another Title I school, where she currently works. Beck has taught classes that combined self-contained students (meaning their behavior is so extreme they cannot be in a general education class), non-English speakers and general education students. Another challenge Beck has encountered is that many of her students are truant, compelling her to adapt work for students who don’t attend class regularly.

“The biggest thing I had to learn was to really get to know my students,” Beck said. “I definitely came in with a lot of biases I didn’t know I had. I had to really get to know each student individually and see what they need.” Furthermore, Beck said there is always a reason why a student is misbehaving. “There’s usually a lot going on at home, or a lot of them are kind of in survival mode,” she said. “So any behavior or learning problem they have, there’s always a reason for it. I’ve never met a kid who’s acting out just to act out.” Through her experience Beck has learned what she can and cannot control as a teacher. While she hopes to empower students with tools to solve problems and take ownership of their lives, she recognizes that her influence is limited. By acknowledging this, “I can have energy to give students the best I can every day.”

Beck finds her work most satisfying when students become responsible for their own learning. She shared an example from her school’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage month last year, when one student didn’t feel the activities reflected his identity as a Latin American immigrant. When he asked if they could do an art project, Beck put him in charge of creating a mural that represented his heritage and personal experience as a Latino in DC.

“Whenever I’m not the one in charge it’s so much better because I know they actually care and are actually learning,” she said. For the past three years Beck has been involved with the Harvard School of Education through Project Zero, a sort of think tank for education focused on observing and improving the learning process. Last fall Beck participated in an educator group for Agency by Design, a Project Zero research initiative “to investigate the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning.” This summer she will also co-facilitate a small learning group at the Washington International School Summer Institute for Teachers.

Beck hopes to expand and diversify her skill set in order to better serve the most underserved students, who she said “don’t get the best of anything, really.” She looks forward to one day working in school administration where she can influence important organizational decisions, or perhaps start a new school. She said, “I would really like to become an expert in student learning and development, or in policy and research for public schools, so I feel like underserved students are getting really quality instruction.”

Photos courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School