By Matthew Tungate
Leslie County High School mathematics teacher Liz Selden saw a disturbing trend during two years of classroom observations, practicums and student teaching at the University of Georgia.
“I realized there were a large number of kids who were coming into classrooms well below grade level,” she said. “I worked in a low-income area in Georgia, and I was told this is a common problem. However I was continually shocked and frustrated when kids were passed on to the next grade, still below grade level.
“This cycle made me realize as a teacher I needed more training to catch my students up to get them on level.”
Alix Smith teaches middle and high school Spanish at Lynn Camp School in Knox County, and she saw a similar problem while in college.
“The idea of educational inequity was implausible to me until I started volunteering in the community outside of my college in Fredericksburg, Va.,” the University of Mary Washington graduate said. “I recognized the children I tutored were consistently denied the opportunity to be successful.”
Both teachers saw a need and an opportunity to make a difference through Teach For America (TFA), a national non-profit organization that gives recent college graduates and professionals intensive training in teaching practices and asks them to commit two years to teach in economically-depressed areas.
“After hearing more about TFA, I learned that its goal is to work in traditionally low-income areas and not only catch students back up but propel them forward. I completely agreed with the statement that every student is capable of learning, regardless of their background. I began reading TFA success stories and statistics, which verified the group’s goals were directly in line with mine. I love working in low-income areas,” Selden said. “Education is one of many means to end the poverty cycle, so I choose to sign up to dedicate at least two years of my life to challenging students and hopefully impacting them for good.”
Smith had a similar rationale.
“I joined Teach For America because I believe every child should have the opportunity to experience success,” she said.
Smith and Selden are two of the 22 teachers working in eight districts in eastern and southeastern Kentucky in the first year of Teach for America Appalachia’s involvement in Kentucky.
Will Nash, executive director of Teach For America Appalachia, said he expects to add a few more districts and 20-30 teachers in Kentucky next year. Teach For America also is expanding to Cincinnati and will include a few northern Kentucky school districts in 2012-13, he said.
“The longer we’re here, the more we will see demand grow based on quality of student outcomes,” Nash said.
Nash said the first year has gone very well, with each district agreeing to continue the partnership for the coming school year.
“I expect every principal who hired corps members this past year to do so again next year,” he said.
Teach For America participants, called corps members, go through the same interview process as other teacher candidates, he said. The advantage is that most corps members are filling traditionally unfilled or under-sought positions.
The largest cohort in Kentucky is Spanish, with five of the 22 teachers teaching the language, Nash said.
“There just aren’t a lot of people from the communities where we work who go off to school and decide that they want to major in Spanish and then return and teach that at the middle school and high school level,” he said. “Our teachers are filling vacancies that have been really hard to fill.”
About 75 percent of corps members come right out of college, while the other 25 percent are career changers or leaving graduate school, he said.
Lynn Camp Principal Amy Bays said she is fortunate to have Smith and four other Teach For America Corps members at her high and middle schools.
“The real-world experience each of our Teach For America teachers brings to our school helps our students to see a much larger picture of the world than we can offer in our small, close-knit community,” she said. “The rigorous plan they must complete while they are in the Teach For America program has added to the professional development plan we have followed as a district. We are learning things from them as they are learning things from us.”
Both Selden and Smith said Teach For America chose the subject areas they would teach based on their backgrounds.
“Originally, I was terrified at the thought of teaching math in high school,” Selden said. “However, I now know that I like it as much if not better than my elementary experiences in my undergraduate program.”
She said she loves teaching and will definitely do so beyond her two-year commitment.
“I’d stay at Leslie County High School for the next 30 years, Lord willing,” she said. “I don’t think there is any other job quite as dynamic and impacting as teaching. No day is the same, no student is identical. The problems are abounding, and I’ve just chosen to try and solve some.”
Selden said getting to know her students and showing them she cares about them has been the most rewarding part.
“I love the light-bulb look they get when they master a tough topic,” she added.
Selden said he has found disciplining her students to be the most challenging part of teaching.
“I know punishing them when they are wrong will teach them valuable lessons; however it’s hard for students to see punishment as a loving action,” she said. “Frequently students take it personally, and that is really tough for me.”
Smith agreed that the student-teacher relationships have been the best part of her first year teaching and she expects to teach beyond her commitment as well.
“My best moments have been seeing a kid take a challenge full on, fight and win. They grow after taking that risk. There is no better feeling than to see kids’ eyes sparkle because they understand and feel successful,” she said. “I have also loved getting to know my students. They are strong, intelligent, brave, empathetic and determined. They are the most amazing people I’ve ever known. I can’t wait to see who they become and what they do in the future. I know that they are going to change the world.”
The most challenging part is being so important in the lives of her students, Smith said.
“If I forget to do something or mess up, it’s not just me who is negatively impacted. That is a child’s life. I impact a child’s future, positively or negatively, every day,” she said. “It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility. It’s terrifying.”
Bays said she has been very impressed with the relationship Smith has built with her classes, noting that the students feel free to take “educational risks” with her.
“Ms. Smith’s classroom is one of my ‘happy places’ in our buildings,” Bays said. “I quickly learned that when the day-to-day happenings and increasing demands of everyone in education is weighing me down, I can go to Ms. Smith’s classroom and regroup.”
Nash said the organization sells corps members on the idea that “poverty is not destiny.”
He noted that only 8 percent of poor children graduate college by age 24 compared to 80 percent of children of affluence nationally.
“Teach For America is a movement to eliminate education inequality,” he said.
Nash, a University of Kentucky graduate and native of Glasgow, taught middle school mathematics in Louisiana for two years as a corps member and had an eye-opening experience. His 7th graders started multiple years behind. Many were just learning multiplication or division, and he was able to get most of them to grade level.
“I learned that through parents’ investment and lots of instructional strategies, overcoming challenges and having a relentless focus on results, that my students could perform as well as those in private schools,” he said.
After that initial week, teachers go to five-week summer training in the Mississippi Delta, he said. They teach summer school along other corps members and veteran teachers.
“So it’s a very hands-on student teaching experience where our folks spend part of their day in class and part of their day teaching class,” Nash said. “They are both teacher and student at the same time.”
Teachers learn the basics of lesson and unit planning, classroom management, instructional delivery strategies and literacy. After that, in the case of Kentucky, corps members return to the commonwealth, spend two weeks learning Kentucky’s Core Academic Standards and receive district-level training.
Once school starts, two full-time managers of teacher leadership development visit every corps member’s classroom every couple of weeks, and then coach based on what they have seen, Nash said. The managers also provide resources to the teachers and provide once-a-month professional development for all corps members as a group.
“It’s a multi-pronged approach,” Nash said.
Bays said she has been pleased with the progress and professionalism of her Teacher For America corps members. Though they may lack the background of a traditional teacher-preparation program, corps members have rich backgrounds in their subject matter, in which they are experts, she said.
“TFA does a wonderful job in training and continuing support of the teachers that represent them. This program is what a true alternate certificate in teaching program should look like,” Bays said. “The Teach for America teachers, like traditionally prepared teachers, are successful because of their intrinsic drive and the support they receive from their preparatory programs and system of ongoing professional development.”