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impact of one and many

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It is OK to leave the classroom. What is not OK, Dr. Philip Uri Treisman said, is if people are surprised you once were a teacher.

Treisman, a renowned University of Texas math professor and leader of education equity, reminded and assured his audience of current and former teachers from their mid-20s to early-30s that our passion to close the achievement gap must course through us regardless of what we may choose to do.

Because that's the reality, right? There are fewer "lifers" out there in any profession these days. Ten-year teaching veterans may decide to go into policy. Mid-career accountants may turn to teaching. I used to feel a bit apprehensive when people would teach for two or three years and move on to the private sector (even though I left the classroom myself!). But after returning from the Texas Teach For America alumni summit this weekend, I really think that there are few things as inspiring as hundreds of energetic people-- teachers, doctors, lawyers, policy makers, stay-at-home parents-- who are dedicated to improving the state of education in this country and are doing what they can in their power to make sure it happens.

But after leaving all pumped up and inspired by this summit, I came back to our mundane life in the Rio Grande Valley and was reminded that the inspiration starts here. One of the first-year teachers I work with, Sarah Saxton-Frump, wrote an opinion article for her alma mater, describing what her ninth graders have learned, what she has been taught, and what she will take with her one day if she moves on.

"[At the start of the school year,] I graded their diagnostic exams - basic tests to check for map skills and knowledge they should have acquired over eight years of schooling. In the middle of grading my third period, I threw down my grading marker. My students couldn't read a basic thematic map. Many couldn't tell me where Europe was; others couldn't even tell me which way north was. In three years, these students would be taking the SAT, applying to college, and stepping into a world that does not dole out second chances at summer school. Horrified, I stopped grading and started planning.

I taught my students population density by cramming them into 16 square feet after "zombies" invaded my classroom and built "Student-Death Zones." We went on EuroTrip 2008, ordered afternoon tea at the Ritz, and "walked" around Auschwitz. We debated the Kyoto Protocol. We brought turkeys and potatoes from Latin America to Europe to illustrate diffusion.

On their midterm exam, 73 percent of my students scored an 80 percent or higher. I am extraordinarily proud of the progress my students have made in one semester. There are still 41 students who need a tremendous amount of help to reach our big goal, but they are committed to it, and so am I.

The dedication and patience required to teach in a low-income, at-risk school are qualities I was not sure I possessed at the end of my senior year. As I thought about "life after Brown," I had about 15 plans. Teach For America was maybe third in line, but I am grateful it's the path I took, in spite of all the horror stories and criticisms I heard before joining. Yes, many of the criticisms were true. As a new TFA hire, I had never taught a class before. I had trained for only six hellish weeks. Even now I stick out like a sore, white thumb at my 98 percent Hispanic high school. I question my ability to impact our crumbling public education system in only two years.

I've realized, though, that no single teacher can have that impact-not on the whole system. But every day, I can show up and stand in front of 150 students and teach. Every day, I can change my students' lives. The nation's children need tenacious leaders who perpetually ask, "How can I teach better? How can I reach my students today?" I know that there are 13-million children growing up in poverty in the United States, and that until more schools ask these questions, that number will not improve.

In years to come, I can have an impact on the system as a whole. I can carry my front-line expertise and values of hard work, effectiveness, and faith in my students out of the classroom and into principals' offices, onto school boards, and into Congress. Right now, though, my movement to change our education system started Aug. 27 with 150 students in the biggest school in the poorest city in the country."

Sarah may not remain a teacher. She may not remain in Brownsville. What I am confident about, however, is that she will take her passion to close the achievement gap anywhere she goes, and I am certain that no one on the Hill or in first period will doubt she ever taught 9th grade.

8 Comments

Hear hear! Well done. Inspiring. (Also sad.) Jan

I am angered everytime I come across articles propigating this idea. As a teacher I am not content believing that teaching is a tourist destination or a step on a career ladder rather than an art and a science. Novelists and chemists devote their lives to a craft why shouldn't we want the same for our profession?


Caleb Dolan
TFA Eastern North Carolina

I am always a little wary about people who come out with overly strong emotional responses to those who follow a meandering path through a career field rather than choosing one thing and sticking to it like glue. Different strokes, man!

Every time I read a passionate essay from a first year TFAer or a blog by a 3rd year CMA, PD ( Program Director) or E.D( Executive Director of TFA I want to ask, "Why are you learning how to teach on other people's kids? "

How does one know how to support and guide "rookie teachers" when their own teaching experience is limited to two years?

We value expertise in this country.. I am certain that the person who cuts the hair of most corps members has more than six weeks of experience.
In fact all states ( TX, AZ, CT, NY, CA, WA) require nine months of full time training and clinical experiences prior to one's even sitting for a state licensing exam.

TFA should not be provided with stipends funded by U.S. taxpayers for only two years of teaching... because Teaching is not service.


On the other hand.. i have walked the walk in TFAers classrooms for almost 9 years. I have witnessed dedicated corps members who are trying to boost their students knowledge base and care for them in the process. But TFA's advertised "Big Goals" are riding on the backs of dedicated 20 somethings who are, for the most part, using the children of color and poverty, for an 'in-the-'mean-time' career boost.

How long will Ms. Shuy stay in the Rio Grande? Not long.. Maybe this year will be her last and she'll move on to grad school in the city, near her boyfriend and use the Americorps stipend ( $10,000 for two years of service.. doubled by many elite grad schools) for her next career.

Research literature notes that one has to be involved in a discipline for at least three years to become and 'advanced beginner," ( Berliner, 1986).

So, TFAers who really want to make a difference.. stay awhile .. five years minimum, as many of my former TFA students suggested, to "make up for the first year, when I was just "flying by the seat of my pants" ( Cassie) or 'Learning on other peoples kids" ( Roberta, Marco, Jana, Charles)
(see Veltri, 2005).

This is my ninth year of teaching in the public schools. Many first year teachers come into teaching with the expectation that “they can turn it all around.” This belief is propagated by the many first-year-hero-teacher books and movies out there. While I am not advocating cynicism, I am saying that this belief masks the fact that many teachers are left completely unsupported by administrators when dealing with corrosive discipline issues. I chronicled my first year of teaching, in a humorous but disturbing memoir called My First Year In Purgatory (ISBN 978-1-4303-1198-0, paperback, 219 pp.) You can read reviews and preview it at Lulu.com or myfirstyearinpurgatory.org Direct link is http://www.lulu.com/content/630141 For information email me at [email protected]

This is my ninth year of teaching in the public schools. Many first year teachers come into teaching with the expectation that “they can turn it all around.” This belief is propagated by the many first-year-hero-teacher books and movies out there. While I am not advocating cynicism, I am saying that this belief masks the fact that many teachers are left completely unsupported by administrators when dealing with corrosive discipline issues. I chronicled my first year of teaching, in a humorous but disturbing memoir called My First Year In Purgatory (ISBN 978-1-4303-1198-0, paperback, 219 pp.) You can read reviews and preview it at Lulu.com or myfirstyearinpurgatory.org Direct link is http://www.lulu.com/content/630141 For information email me at [email protected]

One hopes the teacher angered by TFA will one day learn how to spell "propagating" correctly. I'd suggest some anger management classes followed by a
resolution to use "Spellcheck."
The "learning to teach on other peoples' kids" argument is a cheap shot. All those certification programs involve student teachers learning to teach on "other people's kids."
What pettiness.

I taught in Brownsville I.S.D. for 1 year in 1980-1981. I came to the Rio Grande Valley for a Special Education Teaching position, not knowing a thing about the Valley, nor teaching Mexican- Americans. I dealt with Hurricane Allen too, by staying in a local motel room. I came to the Valley from Niagara Falls, N.Y. A 2,000 Mile Trip.

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