Imagine having a casual conversation with one of the country's most popular TV personalities.
Now, imagine getting to do so as an unexpected guest on her show.
In front of 3.5 million viewers.
On your birthday.
When Rachel Faust accepted a last-minute invitation to travel to LA to attend a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she figured her trip would consist of just that: watching the show as a member of the live studio audience. Moments before the episode began recording, she learned she would be featured on it.
A first-grade teacher and Teach For America corps member at the Van E. Blanton Elementary School in Miami at the time, Faust had written a letter to DeGeneres at her mother's encouragement. "I wrote Ellen about my kids, my classroom, and what I love about teaching," Faust said. "Plus what a whirlwind it had been walking into my role as a 21-year-old and how I had grown as a person because of it."
Impressed by Faust's passion and inspired by the story of her students, Ellen sent a production crew down to Miami to shoot a video. Faust thought she and her students were going to be featured on the show's website, so when Ellen's team learned that it was her birthday the next day and invited her to LA to watch a taping, she still had no idea what was in store.
Twenty-four hours later, as she waited in the audience to be seated, Faust received word that there wasn't actually a place for her to sit with the rest of the viewers – because Ellen was going to interview her for the show.
As Faust sat on stage next to Ellen talking about her school, the hard work of her students, the rewards of teaching, and the challenges of making the most out of limited resources, Ellen introduced the biggest surprise yet: a gift of $100,000 to the elementary school where Faust was teaching.
(Watch the full video of Rachel Faust on The Ellen DeGeneres Show here.)
Months later, Faust decided to pursue an Education Pioneers Fellowship to gain more exposure to the national education policy landscape. As she explained, "I loved teaching and it was a great experience, but I wanted to get a broader understanding of the system and how to make a bigger impact."
Now an Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellow in New York City, Faust has been placed at the Teach For America (TFA) national headquarters, where she's analyzing the leadership metrics used in the TFA admissions process in order to help develop a more holistic corps member selection strategy.
Asked what she's valued from her TFA placement so far, Faust quickly pointed to the level of collaboration between the various Education Pioneers Fellows and alumni working across TFA, including her project supervisor, Justin Bell (Chicago, 2009). "So many of us here are EP Fellows – we're constantly running ideas by each other and bridging teams," she said.
Faust emphasized that these connections don't stop when Fellows leave the office for the day: "Even at the 'happy hours' people are talking about their experiences, networking, and connecting each other to the other people they know. There's this notion that we're all here for the same reason."
For Faust, this opportunity to collaborate with Fellows from different professional backgrounds has been one of the Fellowship's biggest highlights.
"When I came into the Fellowship, I questioned if people could have the same impact in education without previous experience in the classroom. Now, I've met people in the EP Fellowship who are just as fired up as I am to change the system. It's become clear that it's going to take all of us working together to solve these problems and do great things for kids."
Acknowledging that she sometimes misses the direct interaction with students, Faust remains excited to use her EP Fellowship to explore what a career outside of the school building might look like.
"There are people doing incredible work at all different levels. Walking into a room and seeing people who are all so different and who've had vastly different experiences but who are united by this common thing – it's amazing," she said.
Asked what advice she would give to someone considering applying to an EP Fellowship, Faust concluded: "You have to be open to collaborating. Something I admire so much about EP is the idea of building a network and then leveraging it. Nobody is going to solve these challenges alone. If you think you can ride in on a white horse and fix these problems by yourself, EP isn't for you. It's not for vigilantes. But if you can find common ground with the people you're working with and cross boundaries, you can be successful."
As for the $100,000 from Ellen? Faust reported that it has been spent to dramatically improve both in-classroom learning technology and physical education equipment. Which means, as she put it, that "the kids now can actually play."
All images courtesy of ellentv.com.