History Alumnus Featured on The Ellen Show
Wyatt Oroke (History, ’13) was recognized on The Ellen Show for his dedication as an eighth grade humanities teacher at City Springs Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland.
A post shared by Wyatt Oroke (@wyattoroke) on Oct 13, 2017 at 2:45pm PDT
In just five years of teaching in Baltimore, Maryland, this middle school teacher has already left his mark on the city.
“There have been neighborhoods in Baltimore that have been under-resourced and underserved for centuries based on political decisions, be it segregated housing or redlining certain neighborhoods,” said Oroke. “Our students come from the highest poverty rates out of any school in Baltimore City.”
In the classroom, Oroke has seen the effects of homelessness, gun violence, and poverty on many of his students. He aims to show empathy and find different ways to interact and connect with students.
How it all began
Oroke's Baltimore middle school class
As a student at Cal Poly, Oroke’s senior project was a critique of Teach For America, a national corps of teachers who teach in low-income areas, aiming to provide students opportunities similar to students living and learning in more affluent areas. His research on the program led him to apply upon graduating.
“It seemed like a program that aligned with my overall values and my belief in equal access to educational opportunities,” said Oroke.
When Oroke looked over Teach For America’s regions, he noticed that Baltimore had the highest turnover rate for teachers consistently. There was a teacher shortage in the area.
“I decided that if I was going to do the work and wanted to be a teacher, I might as well go somewhere that needed teachers. So, I ended up in Baltimore,” said Oroke.
City Springs is a community charter school, meaning that Oroke is able to write his own curriculum as opposed to following the city-scripted curriculum. This is one of his many passions in the teaching field.
Oroke said his professors at Cal Poly inspired him in his teaching career.
“The history department is unbelievable and brilliant, and I didn’t have a single class I didn’t enjoy,” said Oroke. “Every professor that I interacted with showed me a different side of the world that I didn’t have exposure to beforehand. It really helped shape the way I viewed the world and the people in it.”
In addition, Oroke’s work as a Resident Advisor for Trinity Hall and Sequoia Hall taught him valuable lessons about lending a helping hand.
“Being able to work in a mentorship capacity helped me better understand how to help others and what that help can and should look like. I think that really prepared me to be a teacher,” said Oroke. “All 120 students are very different people, just like all 300 residents were very different people. The support they needed looked very different.”
Meeting challenges with advocacy
Teaching middle school can be a challenge regardless of the school, but Oroke, known as Mr. O by his students, also sees the challenges his students face in their neighborhood.
As a Women and Gender Studies minor at Cal Poly, Oroke learned how to combat injustice with advocacy. Oroke’s students may not have equal access to resources, but that does not stop him from finding ways to better support his students.
Oroke said that throughout his education, he explored and studied statistics that reflected the inequities that burden marginalized groups in the U.S. He said these statistics were often negative about communities around the world, including his community in Baltimore.
“I have slowly realized that I have a lot of those statistics in my hands now. It’s my responsibility to control how those statistics go and what they look like — like the statistic of how many students go from 8th grade to 9th grade. That’s my responsibility. How many students are on reading level in my community, that’s part of my responsibility. How many individuals end up heading to college or having high-paying jobs or being successful... A lot of those are in my hands now. I feel my role as an educator is to impact those statistics in a way that betters our community and really change those statistics to give our community a better outlook.”
His advocacy has led to the start of Gay Straight Alliance at one of his former middle schools, a new teacher mentorship program at Teach For America, and teacher representation on the board of GLSEN Maryland.
Oroke hopes to continue his advocacy and inspire his students to do the same. His students’ advocacy led to a successful fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey victims, which garnered attention from the media.
The Ellen appearance
When Oroke introduced a lesson in class surrounding Hurricane Harvey, his students were eager to help. The students wanted to hold a fundraiser for victims of the recent disaster in Texas.
“We often avoid fundraisers because that’s not the way our community shows their love. They show it in different ways. But, the students wanted to, because we had done lessons around Hurricane Harvey,” said Oroke.
So, the students set a goal of $500.
Despite coming from low-income neighborhoods, the students doubled their goal, raising over $1,000 for hurricane victims. This caught the attention of local news stations and the city councilman.
Soon enough, the total reached $3,000. After a viral tweet from New York Times reporter Erica L. Green celebrated the students’ accomplishment, Ellen Degeneres caught wind of the fundraiser at City Springs. Oroke was featured on The Ellen Show shortly after.
“A lot of people ask if it was fun to be on the show. I would say it was stressful to be on the show. I felt the weight of my community on me in that moment. I knew I was not just representing myself when I was up there. I was representing all 120 of my kids, all 700 kids at City Springs, all 87,000 students in Baltimore city, and all 600,000 residents in Baltimore. So, I really felt a lot of pressure to make sure what I said in that moment was representative of the entire community I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I have watched that tape about a million times at this point. I felt like I am sitting here, but really, it should be the kids sitting here. While I was humbled and honored to be there representing my community, I also knew it was the students who got me to that place.
“My community has given me a pretty positive response, and it makes me feel good that I tried to represent their voices well,” said Oroke.
Degeneres gave City Springs a gift of $25,000 to go toward resources for the school. Though plans for the money have not yet been finalized, Oroke, along with other teachers at City Springs, asked each class what they would like to see the money go toward. Oroke said common answers were greater access to field trips, books, and athletic equipment.
“Since I was on the show, I’ve gotten thousands of messages and phone calls and emails, some from people I don’t know, and some from people I do. There was one message in particular that I got the day after I was on the show. It was a student I had last year named Nyshae. She goes to Western High School in Baltimore — one of our top high schools, an all-girls school in the city. She messaged me, and it had nothing to do with Ellen. All it said was, ‘I just wanted you to know that my English teacher this year says I’m one of the strongest writers in the class, and all of us who went to City Springs are the top writers in the school. So I wanted to thank you for teaching us how to write so well last year.’
“That was the best message I got because it was like my job had found success. I’m allowing the students to find success in my classroom, which is translating as they leave. The hard thing about being an 8th grade teacher is that you see your kids for a year and then they’re gone. And here, they go to tons of different high schools across the city. So it’s hard to keep track of them and know how they’re all doing. It’s hard to know if the lessons in your room are paying off. So, knowing that, in her eyes that the lesson has paid off, it’s made her a stronger writer, it’s giving her greater access to stronger classes, allowing her to be on track to take honors and AP courses, which will allow her to be on track to go to college… All of those things have a big ripple effect. So, to see that I at least have a small part of that has been really cool for me.”