Rhea May is a kindergarten science teacher at Success Academy Bed-Stuy 1. She graduated from Penn in 2011, with a degree in Evolutionary Anthropology from the College.
I spent most of my childhood forcing my younger sister to attend what I dubbed “Rhea School.” Since my parents were both teachers, I’d steal their various homework assignments and attendance logs and demand she get to work. She eventually dropped out of Rhea School and I can’t blame her. Thankfully, I’ve progressed from drilling my sister on decimals to encouraging my elementary schoolers at Success Academy, a high-performing charter school network in New York City, to love science. I’ve been teaching here since 2013 and this year, the network honored me with an Excellence Award. I attribute this achievement not to my experience as a child running a one-student school, but to the knowledge and mindset I learned as an anthropology major at Penn.
To me, anthropology isn’t just the study of human cultures — it’s a way of thinking. Penn’s anthropology program taught me how to step outside of myself and examine not only the larger world but my own experiences through a different lens. Professor Heather Love taught me Queer Theory, and Jamal Alias gave me insight into the history of Islam. Both professors were engaging, authentic, and passionate about their subjects and both were devoted to helping their students shed self-centered views. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and courses like these exposed me for the first time to other cultures. They were inspiring and life-changing. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to play a role in making sure kids got this kind of exposure earlier in life.
So I set to work researching high-performing schools that were committed to providing children with a broad and expansive education. I landed on Success Academy, drawn especially by their distinctive science program. As a kid, I always thought of science as an abstract set of facts that I had to memorize. I remember a requirement to learn the water cycle by heart as a second grader and thinking, “Why do I need to do this?” At Success, my scholars are learning to be scientists through hands-on exploration, not textbooks. Instead of diagramming a water cycle on paper, we pour water into beakers, apply heat, and watch and document the process of condensation. The water cycle isn’t an abstraction — it’s real and my eight-year-olds find it gripping!
My first year of teaching was tough. I struggled to find a work-life balance. But I learned invaluable lessons from the training and hands-on experience Success Academy provided me — lessons like how to effectively manage a classroom. I didn’t need a degree in education to realize that learning to be a good teacher, like any other skill, is a process. I had to trust that process and rely on what my courses at Penn taught me — to think critically about the unique needs of others. This mindset greatly improved my ability to assess my teaching methods and pinpoint solutions I wouldn’t have ordinarily considered.
Toward the end of my first year teaching, I ran into the mother of one of my kindergarteners. She told me that her daughter couldn’t stop talking at the dinner table about our class unit on the science of bread. “Mold doesn’t get on white bread that much, because it has a preservative shield. So don’t eat too much white bread,” the five-year-old reportedly instructed her family, “because eating too many preservatives isn’t healthy.”
It was then that I realized the huge impact I was having on my scholars — helping to spark a passion that could lead them to become real-life scientists, doctors, or teachers. I am grateful to Penn for inspiring me to pass the torch of critical thought and study to my scholars. It is so clear that the perspective I am passing on is helping them flourish!