University of South Carolina

Teach 4 America

Why I Teach for America

‘Education is their ticket out’

Courtney Sowell, a 2007 elementary education graduate, attended Columbia University's Summer Principals Academy this summer and hopes eventually to become a school principal. Her third year with Teach for America begins this fall.

After working in under-achieving schools in Columbia after graduation, I was angered by the low expectations for students, under-qualified teachers, and lack  of accountability for both. I felt compelled to do something and decided to join  the fight against educational inequity by joining Teach For America. Little did  I know that this choice would be the most rewarding and challenging I could  have made.

I now teach fourth grade in Charlotte and am amazed at the strength of my 23 students. I cannot put into words how this experience has forever changed me, but I can say that my students are proof that when kids are given opportunities to succeed, they do. Of my students, only five are on grade-level. The remaining are one, two, or even three grades behind.

This obviously presents a challenge as I am responsible for teaching them fourth-grade content. I discovered quickly in my first year that before I could start teaching them reading or math, I had to teach them to want to be successful and to want to learn. So many of them believe they are not smart, a lack of confidence that’s difficult to erase.

This teaching experience has affected me personally and professionally in ways I did not expect. Sometimes I question why I am here or what kind of impact I can make, but those days are few. I am grateful to be a part of an organization that motivates me to stay focused on my goal.

I have found a leader within myself and am proud of what my students and I have accomplished. As of now, they have the highest reading scores in the fourth grade based on two district exams administered this year. I am excited by this hard work because of the lasting effects this success will have on my students.  My greatest hope for them, which I communicate often, is that education is  their ticket out of the situations and heartbreak that they face daily.

I was told to keep a book of the funny moments that happen in the classroom and really regret not taking this advice. But how could I forget Miguel telling me one day that he didn’t have to listen to me because I was “short and skinny,” or Rafael tying his shoelaces to his desk in the middle of a math lesson, or Jerron telling me that he will say a prayer that one day I will get married?

I can’t imagine having another job: I would probably have withdrawals at not hearing “Ms. Sowell” called out hundreds of times a day! As for my future plans, I plan on staying in Charlotte and teaching a third year at my placement school. My experience has shown me first hand that all students do not receive the same educational opportunities. Eventually I plan on pursuing a master’s in education administration to continue to play a bigger part in helping to change this situation.


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