Tara Theobald-Anderson: Making Connections with Students
Tara Theobald-Anderson always wanted to be a teacher. Now in their 7th year teaching English at Mid-Pen, Tara, who prefers the pronouns they/them, is more focused on the kids they are supervising in the Enrichment Center than they are on our conversation about their early training and teaching methods. As we talk, Tara’s eyes constantly move about the room to make sure that none of the students are stuck on a quadratic equation or a hard word in their reading assignment. For Tara, school is all about what’s best for the students.
Tara grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago. With a smirk, Tara remark that their hometown of Schaumburg is primarily known for having a massive mall. When asked about their early life and why they always wanted to teach, Tara starts talking about high school—a fitting place to start given the central role schools have played in their life.
Tara first recalls a teacher, Mary Lopez, who taught US History at her large public school. Mary was the first teacher who really talked to Tara outside of class. The thoughtful conversations Tara recalls having outside of class with their history teacher probably weren’t the norm in a school with 2,500 kids. “It’s pretty powerful to build relationships with adults at that age," Tara notes. "Having teachers that care about you makes you want to work hard." Tara is on the other side of this equation now, relishing in all the opportunities a school like Mid-Pen gives teachers to make meaningful connections with students.
High school was also the place where Tara became a social activist. Tara’s action was, as it is now, propelled by issues they care deeply about: feminism, politics, and education equity. It’s hard not to picture Tara being mature relative to her high school peers, an intuition reinforced by the fact that during a high school summer they “hooked up with a feminist group of women in their 30’s and 40’s.” Before travelling with the group to take part in the March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC, they had to convince their mother that the cause was worth missing school for.
Of course, Tara likely didn’t miss much school. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been the student of the year in her high school Social Studies department—with nerdy awareness, Tara says, “I was very close to this department.” They also made the National Honor Society, participated in the Students against Destructive Decisions campaign to combat drunk driving, and were an outspoken political agent in the aftermath of 9/11. Tara sees the September 11th attacks during high school as a defining moment that still inspires Tara to speak their mind whenever they feel the stakes are high.
Tara matriculated at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where they pursued a double major in English Education and Gender and Women’s Studies. In college, Tara met their future wife, Gabrielle, while working in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Gabrielle and Tara went on to serve as co-presidents of Feminist United, a feminist group on campus.
After finishing their undergraduate studies, Tara student taught at Whitney Young Magnet High School, which consistently ranks among the top public high schools in Illinois. Ready ready to find their teaching home and with Gabrielle at a transition point in her own career in education, Tara and Gabrielle were both interested in moving to a new part of the county. Tara had spent a summer in Berkeley during college, and since Gabrielle had previously lived there, the Bay Area seemed like a familiar landing place for both of them. Before making her way to Mid-Pen, Tara taught English at Palo Alto Prep and in a specialized program for at-risk youth in the Oakland Unified School District.
At Mid-Pen, Tara’s classroom is a rich, safe place to delve into the historical, cultural, and formal elements that drive the compelling texts they teach. Tara’s passion for literature draws kids into their lessons like a magnet. When a teenage boy on the varsity basketball team declares that The Joy Luck Club is now his favorite book, you quickly see how masterful Tara is at opening up literary worlds for every student. Tara describes his reaction as “really sweet.” The tendency to talk about teaching in nurturing terms reveals Tara’s emotional connection to both their kids and their craft.
Tara is perhaps most proud of introducing a Gender Studies course to Mid-Pen. They beam with delight as they talk about both the details and the broad scope of their classes. Tara says, “English classes teach students how to think. But Gender Studies shows them how to see a new world.”
Tara is a teacher in her full stride, helping students identify and articulate ideas they will care about and work with for the rest of their lives.