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.
‘I kissed my social life good-bye’
Jamie Downs graduated from Carolina in 2007 and completed two years as a Teach for America fellow in Houston. He's now a program director for Teach for America in Kansas City, Mo.
I was sitting on the edge of my seat, watching Barack Obama walk across the stage at Grant Park on election night. I thought to myself, “I could’ve been a part of this momentous occasion!”
In the spring of my senior year in college I had grappled with the decision to accept my position as a Teach for America Corps member or to take an offered position with the Barack Obama campaign. The reflection that I could have been there in Chicago on election night was a strong but fleeting thought.
As I look back on my experience in Teach for America, I know that there is no other way that I would rather have spent these first two years out of college. The success that I have experienced in the classroom has affirmed the optimism I had when joining the corps: Committed individuals can change a classroom, and every year is an opportunity to redirect a child’s life.
My experience with Teach for America has been phenomenal. I have had the pleasure of teaching sixth-grade English at Fondren Middle School in Houston, Texas. My experience here has been both challenging and rewarding. When I first stepped foot on the campus, I had no idea what to expect. I had no teaching experience, and I was charged with ensuring that 80 sixth graders were ready to master a comprehensive reading exam by the end of the school year.
After administering a diagnostic exam to my students at the end of my first week, I was chagrined when I realized how behind my students actually were. Only 35 percent could read on a fourth grade level -- and those were the high achievers. I realized the immense challenge that lay before me.
That weekend I went home and examined my student’s data, searching for a solution that would get my students where they needed to be in just eight months. I knew it would take dedication on my part, but I would also have to find a way to invest in my students so that they wouldn’t tire out or give up. So I devised a master plan and kissed my social life good-bye. My plan was filled with countless after-school tutorials and Saturday enrichment sessions. I adopted a “by-any-means-necessary” approach and prayed that my students would be successful.
At the end of the year, it was with immense pride that I perused the outstanding gains that my sixth graders had made. Reviewing the passing and commended (95 percent or higher) reading scores was like seeing materialization of data tracking, remediation, and class commitment from month to month. My students, many of whom had never passed the exam before, were ecstatic when they learned of their success. My classroom was filled with hugs, smiles, and tears. My students had tasted success and loved it; now their lives would be changed forever.
‘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.
Hello, Big Apple
A new grad explains why he joined TFA—and what he hopes to accomplish
Austin Collie, from Easley, S.C., graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in international business/finance and a minor in French.
As an international business and finance major at Carolina, I realize that it seems unconventional (to say the least) that I decided to join Teach for America, pledging to spend the next two years of my life teaching math in New York City public high schools.
There are several reasons, though, why becoming a Teach for America corps member is an attractive “next step” for graduates like me. Personally, the opportunity was too good to pass up to share with secondary students the analytical skills that I have developed as a finance major.
Contrary to what many people assume, joining the TFA Corps is hardly a sacrifice. I will receive a full, first-year teacher’s salary; I’ll get to live and work in New York City (possibly the best perk of all!); and I will be able to take advantage of Teach for America’s very impressive partnerships with prestigious financial institutions and business schools after my two-year commitment. This all goes without saying that, given the current state of the financial world, the chances of me finding a financial job that I would have enjoyed were slim to none.
As a teacher, I hope to motivate my future students to invest in their education by showing them exactly how important math can and will be in their lives. A goal of mine is to inspire them to pursue avenues in life that they might not have previously considered, whether that is finding their dream job, going to college, or something else. There will be plenty of obstacles for me -- low expectations and limited resources, to name a few. All in all, though, the next two years will probably be the most challenging of my life, but I am confident that they have the potential to be the most rewarding as well.