Class Time, Part II

Where children are born and raised will determine, in most cases, the quality of their education and their prospects for success.

Teach For America calls this phenomenon “educational inequity” and the 21-year-old organization exists to limit its effects. A noble cause, it’s also one of the most-sought-after post-baccalaureate opportunities out there today. Nationally there are about 10 applicants for every teaching position with TFA, and scores of Middlebury College graduates have made the two-year commitment to teach in high-poverty public schools through the program.

Take William Rainey Johnson ’09 for example. He spent the past two years teaching at-risk middle-school students in a Nevada district where, he says, only one in 14 students will eventually graduate from high school. (Yes, you read that correctly.) When Johnson was an undergraduate at Middlebury, he earned the Merck Award for excellence in chemistry and was co-captain of the cross country team. He was also the Golden Snitch on Middlebury’s World Cup-winning Quidditch team.

But after Commencement, Johnson and 12 other members of his class faced tougher challenges and fewer rewards as newbie educators with Teach For America. Now that their two years of service are up, Middlebury Magazine connected with members of the Class of 2009 TFA corps to gather their impressions and find out what they’re doing next.

“Teach For America was a sensational experience for me,” said Johnson. “But for every success [with a student] there was a failure or multiple failures. Phone calls to parents helped. Encouraging students to come in before and after school helped. Providing individualized instruction daily helped. But time was always the limiting factor. There was never enough time.”

Johnson continued, “All the effort in the world cannot force a person to learn. Ultimately that decision resides with the individual. And this is something that I came to appreciate – the motivation to learn is internal. Sure a teacher can try to light the fire, but the student is the one who decides if it will catch.”

Johnson will attend the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the fall and he sees a parallel between teaching and medicine. He looks forward to having “the opportunity to help patients return to the joys in their lives and teach them about health care, treatments, and prevention.”

Twenty-five hundred miles east of Las Vegas, Sheyenne Brown ’09 taught for two years at the TEAM Charter School in Newark, New Jersey. One of the most memorable experiences of her second year was discovering a way to reduce the bullying among her female students.

“I started a girls group this year to help some of the ladies find productive ways to cope with growing pains,” related Brown. “It started off as just a space for them to vent, but they started to push each other to stop doing the hurtful things that girls so often do to each other at that age. They called each other to task and found ways to become a support unit.  I couldn’t ask for anything more of my girls.”

When Brown was a theatre major at Middlebury, she wrote and performed a stunning one-woman show called A Colored Girl’s College Tour. And during her second year in Teach For America she came to the realization that her heart still rests with theatre and performing. In recent months things fell into place for Brown: she received one of 10 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Scholarships and was accepted into Columbia University’s MFA in acting program for the fall.

One member of the 2009 TFA corps from Middlebury has signed up to continue teaching for a third year. Ruby Bolster ’09, who last year talked about the isolation of teaching at a Bureau of Indian Education School in New Mexico “43 miles from the nearest grocery store and 52 miles to the nearest post office” volunteered to be back at her school in Pueblo Pintado in the fall after spending this summer in a cooler climate…in Alaska.

Ruby Bolster '09 posed with three of her students before their Thanksgiving pageant.

“I want to continue telling my students’ stories because they are incredible human beings with so much potential. I am teaching a third year at my school and considering a fourth year in a different system,” Bolster said.

Bolster drove hundreds of miles to meet her students’ parents.  “A few days every week, I drove students home from school in order to meet their families. This allowed me to introduce myself in person and initiate conversations about our shared vision and goals for the students. Home visits started the school year on a really positive note and allowed me to build real relationships with some of my students’ families.”

But not every home visit was upbeat. “It was also very humbling because I saw first-hand the type of living conditions my students live in as a result of poverty,” she said.

Lexie Fisher ’09, who taught at a charter school in New York City, is also considering a career in teaching, but is taking time now to travel, reflect, and learn to speak Spanish fluently. She felt that her classroom management skills improved significantly from year one to year two, and that her intensive experience with TFA would, eventually, make her a stronger teacher.

It sounds like Fisher is going to miss teaching for now. Asked if she is considering it for a career, she replied with an emphatic “Yes! I love working in the classroom because every day is different and I love being around my students.”

Sarah Emmons ’09 also plans to stay in education, although the field of educational leadership appeals to her more than classroom teaching.  Last summer the economics major told Middlebury Magazine that she aspired to be a high school principal, especially because she felt the need for the vision of TFA to extend into the administrative levels of America’s public schools.

“TFA is definitely ‘on the job’ training,” Emmons opined, “but it allows the benefit of being able to learn and apply educational theory at the same time, rather than absorb years of theory and then try to apply it all at once. The learning curve has been HUGE, but the continuous support from TFA staff, other corps members, and teachers at my placement site allowed me to improve my teaching abilities each and every day.”

As for her next steps, Emmons (whose TFA placement was in Tulsa, Oklahoma) said, “I just cannot imagine not working with students every day, and I want to be a part of advocating for the students and their families who are not always offered rigorous educational opportunities. I know that there is so much work to be done to ensure that each and every student in America is getting the education he/she deserves. I cannot imagine a more rewarding career than doing whatever it takes to make sure this is happening.”

After two years of teaching in Memphis, Brooke Farquhar ’09 moved to Charlottesville to start a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program at the University of Virginia. “I hope to go into pediatric care, working primarily with families in low-income communities,” she said.

During her second year in TFA Farquhar saw marked improvement in her students’ academic achievements “as a result of daily reflecting on how I could further maximize instructional time, keeping small group lessons focused and fun for my students, and investing my assistant teachers in our class’s big goals for the year.”

Added Farquhar, “Seeing my own growth in leading my students to academic achievement made me believe even more in the leadership of second-year TFA teachers and more experienced teachers everywhere.”

Layla Zhu ’09 balanced her TFA teaching assignment in Houston for the past two years with graduate-level classes at the Bread Loaf School of English in the summer. Next step: Zhu plans to enroll in graduate school in the Boston area and “move on to the educational technology industry and work in the education field from a different perspective. But teaching will always be a possibility down the road.”

Not everyone shares the opinion that Teach For America reduces educational inequity, but there’s no denying that TFA helps college graduates gain teaching experience and refine their professional goals. (Of the 13 members of the Class of 2009 who entered TFA, seven agreed to stay in touch with the magazine. Their experiences are reflected in this story.)

This year 63 new Middlebury graduates applied to Teach For America and 12 were offered positions. Of those, 11 accepted teaching assignments ranging from New York and Chicago, south to Florida and the Mississippi Delta, and across the USA from California to South Dakota. As Rainey Johnson and the other TFA alumni can tell them, steep challenges await.

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  1. Thank you for these inspiring stories!

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