Why I Teach for America
Each year, thousands of new teachers—including some Carolina graduates—put their ideals and optimism to work in Teach for America. Since its launch in 1990, Teach for America has put 20,000 new teachers in underserved schools, helping to educate some three million students in 33 urban and rural regions across the nation. The teaching corps tends to attract very bright and very motivated men and women who truly believe they can make a difference. Very often, they do. Here, in their own words, are stories from three recent Carolina alumni who joined the Teach for America ranks.
‘Teaching peace and hard work’
Jennifer Brackett Grover graduated from the Honors College in 2008 and joined Teach for America last fall. She'll begin teaching 12th-grade English at her placement school this fall.
While one fifteen-year-old girl is writing “We Luvz You, Mrs. Grovaaaa” on the board, two more are glaring at me because they are being written up for cheating on a quiz. Daily, my 9th-grade English students leave me feeling frenzied.
I joined the Memphis Teaching Fellows for several reasons. I had just gotten my undergraduate degree in English, and although I felt compelled to get a doctorate, I wanted to get out in the “real world.” I needed a job in Memphis where my husband would attend medical school. Most importantly, I thought this would be my shot to make a positive change in the world. I remembered my English teachers from high school and college with awe at the ways that they helped me to define myself. Knowing that Memphis suffers from typical urban ailments -- over-crowding, horrible turnover and dropout rates, lack of resources, and general disillusionment -- it seemed like just the sort of trench that I wanted to fight in.
I struggled for weeks to understand my students. They act like pre-schoolers: petty, arguing over pencils, cheating, pitching fits. And yet they are young adults, making out in the hallways, working part-time jobs, taking their first steps into the world beyond their neighborhoods. They constantly surprise me.
The charter school where I teach English and reading for comprehension is 90 percent Title 1. Of the 100 freshmen I teach, at least two are in abusive situations, two have babies, many are having sex, and several have siblings who deal drugs, are in gangs, and/or have been shot. Almost all are under-prepared, which leaves everyone suspect in my mind: the school system, No Child Left Behind, former teachers, parents, the community, American culture. But I resign myself to fight my small battle in my classroom, teaching peace and hard work.
I understood that school would likely not be the first thing on their minds. Still, I assign them a short story to read for homework and they react as though I’d assigned War and Peace. Over time, I’ve learned that the crazier I behave, the better. I can threaten to call home or lower their conduct grades and nothing changes; once I threaten to defenestrate them, I have their attention and I can move on with the lesson.
I can joke about this now because I spent my first semester of teaching having nervous breakdowns and searching for other jobs. After Christmas, I relaxed and realized I could do this. I see progress, and that is encouraging. One student has a learning disability and seldom finishes his classwork, but he turned in an essay last week with every quotation cited and written correctly, so I danced through the hallways to give him his A. He found this humiliating. Nevertheless, I take joy in small victories.