A new brand of teacher

Kids running on a track
New York Road Runners serves over 100,000 children through youth running programs in New York City, all 50 states, and South Africa.

Ryan Lee (MGT ’06) and Gina Xenakis (MKTG ’07, M.S./MKTG ’09) found love at Virginia Tech and — thanks to a Pamplin class they took five years ago as undergraduates — work they love, in New York City, for nonprofit organizations.

“It was a great class for getting us thinking about what we wanted to do with our lives and careers,” says Lee, who provides fundraising support and marathon training for runners at New York Road Runners, known best for organizing the New York City marathon each fall.

“Neither of us had ever even considered how practical it was to apply what we learned in our business classes to socially relevant careers. This class changed both our career trajectories,” says Xenakis, who teaches sixth graders at South Bronx Academy for Applied Media after joining Teach for America.

Ryan Lee and Gina Xenakis
Gina Xenakis and Ryan Lee at the Jingle Bell Jog in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park

The couple, who are engaged, took the Marketing, Society, and the Public Interest course taught by marketing professor Julie Ozanne. Discussing their jobs and some of the struggles and rewards, Xenakis and Lee say they both found the realms of their young constituents a far cry from their own backgrounds, growing up in comfortable homes in Virginia’s Tidewater.

New York Road Runners

His student-runners’ “lack of trust of adults in their lives” was “something very different from my childhood experience,” says Lee, whose initial duties at New York Road Runners were to coach running teams in three middle schools. “I could see a distinct difference in my relationship with my students, from the first day of practice to the last. Once they realized I wasn’t going to give up on them or quit as their coach, the barriers between us came down.”

Though the fall marathon, which draws more than 100,000 applicants from all over the world, is its premier event, New York Road Runners also organizes many other races, Lee says, and serves 100,000-plus children through youth running programs in the city as well as in all 50 states and South Africa. The programs promote exercise and nutrition, “but our main goal is to transfer values learned from running — such as goal setting, discipline, and perseverance — into everyday life.”

Running programs for kids

The programs are provided free to schools in lower-income areas — to be eligible, at least half of the school population must qualify for free lunch — and are primarily supported by adult runners in NYRR’s Team for Kids program, whose 1,600 members collectively raise about $4.5 million a year.

“Most of the schools don’t have P.E., and if they have an extracurricular sport, it’s usually only available to the most athletic boys. Girls and overweight students rarely have an outlet to be physically active, and our goal is to fill that void.”

Overcoming challenges

One of his most challenging schools was in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. “Every kid on the team was there because they were having problems in school or were court mandated to participate in after-school activities.” Their first practice was anything but a success. The only place to run, Lee recalls, was a 30-yard stretch of sidewalk that they had to share with an ice-cream vendor.

“The environment was challenging enough, but the kids — and one student in particular — made a point to test me. Two ways to describe him on that first day are disrespectful and non-compliant.” As the weeks passed, however, Lee adds, “he seemed to trust and respect me a little more. By the end of the year, he was the captain of our team.”

At another school, in the Bronx, Lee was preparing students for their first race when one of them confided in him how excited he was to see the “forest,” he recalls. “I had no idea what he was talking about, until I realized he was referring to Central Park. Of the 30 kids on the team, only a few had ventured out of their neighborhood and into Manhattan.”

In his current role, Lee does not work with youth runners on a daily basis. “However, I still get to be ‘race buddy’ on the weekends. I run and walk with a kid, get to know them, motivate them to finish the race, and let them know how awesome they are for finishing.”

Team for Kids

Becoming a runner himself only six years ago, Lee says he enjoys working with the adult athletes in Team for Kids. “They’re upbeat, positive people who understand the value of running in their lives and go a step further to share these benefits by fundraising for our programs.”

All amateur runners, the Team for Kids members range in age from 18 to 75 and in athletic ability from beginner to experienced. Lee designs marathon training plans for the different levels. “We meet three times a week in Central Park to run and discuss fundraising.”

The job offers two particularly fulfilling moments, he says: “One is seeing our TFK runners cross the finish line at the marathon. Runners have collapsed on me crying and thanking me for being there for them. Our runners do a lot for the kids in our programs, and when they finish the race, they realize how much they’ve also done for themselves.”

The other is seeing the money collected put to good use. “I’m deeply moved at our youth races and track events, where underserved kids are given the opportunity to compete in organized running and to have fun.”

Some of the children who participate in events supported by the New York Road Runners

Xenakis, South Bronx Academy

“The students I teach are growing up in a different world than I did,” says Xenakis.

The academic performance of her sixth graders varies from average to below average — several students are two or more years overage for their current grade; some can read only at third-grade level. Her young charges, however, never fail to impress her with their insights into life and the human condition, she says. “At a tender age, they must accept more responsibility than a child growing up in a middle- or high-income neighborhood. They really do grow up faster.”

Integrating technology skills and social studies

Initially teaching technology in grades six through eight, Xenakis decided that it would be more effective to teach the subject through a particular content area. After convincing her principal to let her create a new curriculum integrating technology skills and social studies, she now teaches sixth graders social studies in a computer lab.

Xenakis, who had never taught before undergoing training at Teach for America, says the experience has been eye opening. “I have seen first hand many of the injustices that are occurring in our educational system.” Each day, she notes, brings a fresh surprise or struggle and sometimes a victory. “It is an understatement to say that I never know what to expect.”

Teaching effectively

Among her challenges, she says, is “trying to think like a middle-school student. To teach effectively, you have to get into the minds of the students; you have to start seeing the world as they see it. Only then will you be presenting information in the most relevant way possible.”

Good teachers, Xenakis states, “always give their students a fresh start every day, even if the day before they were completely disrespectful to you.” She adds, however, that “not holding a grudge against a student and his/her previous actions has been hard for me.”

Moreover, “it is very hard when you develop a close relationship with a student, and you have a vested interest in their well-being, and you start to see them make wrong decision after wrong decision, in and out of school. It can really crush you when you start to see them spiral in a bad direction. You do everything you can to get them back on track, but, at the end of the day, they make their own decisions.”

The rewards of teaching

She still feels, however, that building a sturdy mentoring relationship with students is “one of the greatest rewards — when you truly become someone they trust and go to for advice and help, it is amazing.” The job’s dispiriting aspects also recede when she reminds herself that her other students are making progress in their education and personal lives and that, as a Teach for America corps member, she is part of an organization “that is a leader in the movement to close the achievement gap for students in low-income areas.”

Xenakis says she realizes that it takes time to become a part of the culture of the community in which she is now heavily invested. “There is a lot to learn about your students — how they live, what they enjoy doing, and what motivates them to learn. Being in a new career and working with a population that is different from my own keeps life very interesting.”

In addition to her Pamplin professors, her parents have been strong influences on her career choice, Xenakis says. “They exposed me to social injustices as a child and encouraged me to participate in volunteer work. They’ve listened to my hardships and triumphs as a teacher and encouraged me to continue teaching through even some of the most challenging of situations.”

What would she say to young people about choosing a career with a socially relevant focus? Xenakis responds quoting Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2011

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