When “going back to school” takes on a whole new meaning.
There are over 8,200 first- and second-year members of the Teach For America (TFA) corps currently assigned to rural and urban schools across the country. And while there may be some debate about the long-term effectiveness corps members have on the achievement levels of their students, there is no doubt that TFA teachers—most of whom enter the program straight out of college—quickly learn that teaching is exhausting work that requires patience, determination, advance planning, and a tremendous amount of energy.
Thirteen members of the Middlebury College Class of 2009 entered Teach For America after graduation 15 months ago. Some went into urban schools in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City, while others were placed in rural outposts across the United States.
Now with one year under their belts and one more year to go (since TFA is a two-year commitment), middmag.com decided to find out what their experiences were like.
For Ruby Bolster ’09, who is teaching at a Bureau of Indian Education School in New Mexico, her biggest challenge is “the combination of inexperience and isolation. TFA’s summer institute [a five-week intensive training program] gave me a solid base, but there are so many things about teaching that you can only learn through extended experience.
“Furthermore, I teach and live 43 miles from the nearest grocery store, 52 miles to the nearest post office, and almost 100 miles to the nearest Wal-Mart, which is a staple of life in this corner of the Southwest. When your only surroundings are the school and the desert, it is easy to get caught up in your classroom and lose sight of your work/life balance.”
Sheyenne Brown’s biggest challenge is keeping up with her planning. “My school—the TEAM Charter School in Newark, New Jersey—doesn’t fool around, so my lesson plans and unit plans are always due way in advance. It can be cumbersome trying to get the new plans out while, at the same time, you are busy teaching the last ones.”
TFA has given Brown ’09, who’s originally from Newark, the opportunity to help turn her home community around. “I am getting to work with the kids I wanted to work with: Black and Latino children who, in some cases, are severely below the reading and math levels they need to be on for their actual grade level. I have also gotten to know them as little people with opinions and wisecracks and attitudes, and it’s rewarding to be a part of their development.”
Sarah Emmons ’09 taught ninth-grade algebra at a large public high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and her biggest challenge “was definitely motivating my students to succeed. Early in my first year the phrase ‘pulling teeth’ took on a whole new meaning for me.
“It seemed like my students would rather do anything other than master my objective for the day (including fighting with each other or doing drug deals in class). But as the year went on, and I got a better feel of what motivated them, they began to do a little more work for me. By the end of the year, a system of stamps, prizes, and climbing mountains finally clicked and I saw huge gains in their mastery scores.”
Emmons, who hopes to be a high school principal someday, is starting a master’s degree program in educational leadership at the University of Oklahoma this fall while fulfilling her second year with TFA. “I have determined that a school truly needs the right vision, direction, and implementation in order to be transformed. I sometimes joke that Teach For America needs to start another branch called ‘Administrate for America’ so that TFA’s vision of excellence can have a role at the administrative level.”
Another member of the Class of 2009 is balancing graduate school with her Teach For America responsibilities. Layla Zhu was at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont this past summer before returning to her teaching post in Houston, Texas.
“The most rewarding parts of teaching,” said Zhu, “are having a positive impact on my students’ lives, developing long-lasting relationships with students and colleagues, and sharpening my communication, conflict-resolution, and leadership skills.” Zhu teaches six sections of math class a day.
Brooke Farquhar, who was in the Feb class of 2008.5 at Middlebury, is returning to the Ridgeway Early Learning Center in Memphis, Tennessee, this month. She puts her experience in the context of how she views her students:
“I remember during the TFA summer institute that one of the experienced corps members told us that at some point ‘these kids’ are going to become ‘our kids.’ Now as I am going back into my second year of teaching, I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t think of the kids in Room 116 as ‘my kids.’”
In order to find the most talented candidates, the selection process for Teach For America is highly competitive. A record 46,000 individuals applied to join the 2010-12 TFA corps and 12 percent (or about 5,520) were accepted.
At Middlebury, the Career Services Office sets up on-campus interviews in October, December, and March for graduating seniors interested in TFA. Susan Walker, associate director of CSO, explained:
“TFA’s 12 days of interviews is more than for any other recruiting organization that comes to Middlebury, including the large Wall Street firms. We manage the promotion, the application process, logistics, and communications with TFA recruiters and students, and I don’t think our record with Teach For America would be as impressive if not for the services provided by our staff.”
This month, as TFA veterans like Brooke Farquhar return to “their kids,” eleven recent graduates from the Class of 2010 are heading to their first Teach For America assignments.
The newest members of the corps from Middlebury are: Hillary Coleman, assigned to the D.C. region; Dale Freundlich, New York City; Alexandra Garfield, Connecticut; Kelly Janis, San Antonio; and Dallas Moody, New York City.
Also, George Osei-Mensah, Houston; Michael Panzer, New York City; Kathleen Remington, St. Louis; Julia Szabo, Phoenix; Molly West, Tulsa; and Claire Williams, Los Angeles.