In total panic I dealt with the dreaded question every college senior faces: “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
Law school was in my future, however in the meantime, I needed to find a “gap” job. One that was stimulating, would allow me to be financially independent, and travel. Just when I thought the only job offering those options was as a permanent backpacker/street performer in Europe, I came across Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization.
Like so many college seniors, I was unfamiliar with the TFA’s efforts to attract top college graduates to teach in public schools in low income areas around the U.S. TFA applicants need not be education majors, but rather people with leadership skills, competitive GPAs, who are semi-workaholics. In other words, go-getters willing to commit themselves to working for two years, in order to do whatever it takes, to be the best in the classroom.
TFA is selective with a rigorous and competitive application process so I was a bit nervous applying. In the end, I was one of the lucky among the 12% admitted. My two year commitment meant that I would be paid a starting teacher’s salary with benefits, have the possibility of deferring payments on my student loans and receive an annual education award of $4,725 at the end of each year.
The next step was to rank the areas where I wanted to teach and live. Although TFA does not promise placing you at your top ranked location, they do their best. Fortunately, I was placed in Miami, my hometown and later found out that I would be teaching six grade language arts and reading in Opa-Locka.
Then shortly after graduation, I made the painful switch from partying with friends to boot camp in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Summery Institute” a.k.a teacher boot camp, trains you to become an effective educator. To say the least, Institute was a wake up call to the real world. All the “corps members” as we were called, lived in the dorms of Georgia Tech but to say our experience was anything like college would be a stretch.
Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we were bused to our respective summer schools where we attended workshops, taught a summer school class, came home and prepared a lesson planned, called parents, graded papers and got ready for the next day. It was grueling! Some people couldn’t handle the pressure and quit pretty early on. But for the most part we all stuck it out bonding over our difficulties and shared exhaustion.
Boot camp ended and I headed to Miami to mentally prepare myself for the experience that I was about to embark—was I ready after only 6 weeks of training? Were my students, almost entirely African American, going to give a white 22 year old teacher, a chance? Would I be able to stick it out for two years? Was I really qualified to teach kids how to read and write?
Only when school began, did I grasp what a huge challenge I would be facing. Almost all of my sixth graders came with a second or third grade reading level and comprehending very little of what they read. The majority of them had scored a 1 the prior year, the lowest possible score in the FCAT, the state standardized test in reading. Most had never read a book before. They didn’t know what the Holocaust was. They couldn’t find New York on a map. How was I supposed to teach a group of students all of this in one year?
The majority of them had scored a 1 the prior year, the lowest possible score in the FCAT, the state standardized test in reading. Most had never read a book before. They didn’t know what the Holocaust was. They couldn’t find New York on a map. How was I supposed to teach a group of students all of this in one year?
All these questions daunted me. But now, the school year is almost over. We are in the last nine weeks and I have made close connections with several of my students. Many have grown a full developmental year in reading level. We have read two novels and are getting ready to read Number the Stars and start on a Holocaust unit. I can say confidently, with few exceptions, that all of my students love to read and look forward to each new novel we tackle.
Getting us to this point has not been a walk in the park. For me it required long nights of lesson planning, arriving to school an hour early at 6 am, staying after school, giving my personal number out for help with homework on the weekends and finding the ability to pull energy and patience out of thin air. It has required a lot of my students as well, learning that they need to have personal responsibility for their success in school and rise to high expectations.
All in all though I’d say we’ve done pretty well. My hope is that they can continue to excel outside of my classroom, to better their lives and get out of a system, which has failed them. Of course, we have a lot more yet to do this year but we take steps each day.
Although I still plan on attending graduate school in a couple years, the experience that I have had in the classroom will never leave me. It has allowed me to make a difference in the lives of 60 students. But this experience has also opened my eyes to one of the most pressing issues in our country: the failing public education system.
In retrospect, and with a full awareness of the job’s demands, working for Teach for America was the best decision I could have made. I am challenged everyday, provide a service for my country, and have made incredible friends…plus I will never forget those 60 young faces.
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