By Helen Watkins Norman
They survived a grueling application process, surpassing 14,000 other talented college students to join the elite Teach for America corps. They endured five weeks of teacher “boot camp” last summer, learning how to write lesson plans and manage discipline in the classroom. They scrambled to find roommates and housing in cities and towns far from family and friends.
And that was the easy part. Now, comes the real challenge: actually teaching in America’s lowest-income rural and urban schools.
Ten members of Rhodes’ class of ’03 — the largest group of Teach for America recruits in college history — have joined this educational crusade. Their mission: to ensure that all students in this country get a good education, no matter where they live. But like most ambitious journeys, the path is long and sometimes rocky. This job, say the Rhodes recruits, is the most difficult they have ever tackled.
This year’s Rhodes corps members are teaching first-graders who don’t know their alphabet and cannot recognize their written names, ninth-graders who read at fifth-grade levels, Hispanic middle school students who speak minimal English and children of all ages who must pass by dangerous housing projects just to walk through their school’s front door. At the same time, they are also discovering pockets of bright, motivated youngsters who yearn to rise above their sometimes-dismal circumstances and truly achieve.
“Nothing about this job is easy,” says Tyler Sanders, who teaches 23 first-graders at Nadia J. Pagan School (P.S. 226) in the Bronx. Among the biggest challenges are the expectations he places on himself, notes Sanders, who led the Rhodes Student Government Association his senior year and taught English and math to seventh-graders in South Africa the summer before. “Everyone always says nothing will compare to your first year (of teaching)…that it will get better. I have to remind myself of that,” he laughs.
“I fully expect that anyone’s first year of teaching is little more than a game of survival,” echoes Lance Ingwersen, a collegiate standout in soccer. Ingwersen teaches sixth through eighth-grade special education classes in an Edinburg, TX, school that is 95 percent Hispanic. “Therefore, I think my situation would have been very similar had I been an education major and known from the beginning that I wanted to be a teacher.”
“Nothing could have prepared me for this, but my Rhodes experience led me here,” notes Stu Johnston, a Burch (Service) Scholar and president of the Honor Council while at Rhodes. Johnston says he learned through his Burch experience and interacting with other students at Rhodes “how important it is to do something you love.” Originally leaning toward a career in physical therapy, Johnston discovered that physical therapy didn’t “light my fire,” he recalls.
“Education really did…being a teacher, being a part of young people’s lives on a daily basis for an extended period of time, that was important to me.” A physics major, Johnston is currently teaching seventh-grade science — ironically “everything BUT physics” — at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore.
For Brooke Molpus, who teaches language arts to eighth-graders in a school just east of downtown Houston, the work is hard but the experience is rewarding.
“My students face challenges I would never have dreamed of facing at the age of 13 or 14, such as being in charge of caring for younger siblings, cooking and cleaning for their family, assisting parents who have limited English proficiency and dealing with gang influences in their neighborhoods.” Parents sometimes pull their children out of school to accompany them as translators when they apply for jobs, she continues.
“However, they are truly resilient,” says Molpus, “and I think it is that resiliency that inspires me most. Despite the challenges of poverty combined with language barriers, my students strive to learn….They know they are at a disadvantage in life, and they want to change that. I have some extremely bright and creative students who are just looking for an opportunity to shine.”
Like all Teach for America corps members, those from Rhodes have made a two-year commitment to the program, agreeing to teach in one of the 20 areas currently served by the organization. This alternative certification program allows liberal arts graduates without education degrees to work in areas where there are teacher shortages. The list of Rhodes assignments this year includes the Mississippi Delta, Maryland, Louisiana, New York and Texas.
Two of the Rhodes recruits are identical twins Julie and Cindy Hallums, who chose teaching assignments uncharacteristically far from each other. Julie teaches a bilingual third-grade class in inner city Chicago; sister Cindy — a self-described “city girl” — teaches special education to middle school children five minutes from the Mexican border, in a Texas town so small that the Dairy Queen is the primary reference point. Living in Bolivia as children and taking Spanish classes at Rhodes honed their Spanish-speaking skills, important to both of their jobs.
Once accepted into the program, Teach for America recruits receive an armload of books on teaching. Their homework was to absorb these and observe teachers in action in nearby primary or secondary schools before arriving for their true crash course in education — a five-week Teach for America Institute held during the summer in Houston, New York or Los Angeles. At Institute, recruits spend part of each 12-hour-day taking classes about what works and what doesn’t in the classroom. They also teach a summer school class on their own.
TFA pays for their room, board and training at the Institute as well as one week’s worth of room and board when they initially arrive at their teaching site. They are hired and paid by the actual school districts; regular first-year teacher’s salaries can range from $20,000 to $41,000 depending on the urban or rural nature of their assignments.
Lora Cover, director of national recruitment for Teach for America, notes that Rhodes has become a top school for the organization.
“We’re a very selective program, and the reason we’re so selective is that it is such a challenging thing to be a part of our movement. We’re looking for people who are really going to be able to handle any challenge, no matter what. Rhodes has such a high caliber student that we’ve been able to find people who are very achievement-focused and have a sense of personal responsibility already.”
At places like Rhodes, where Teach for America has a strong track record, the organization will devote extra resources to recruitment, according to Cover. That is why last year, for the first time, the organization hired two Rhodes students as interns to help in program promotion and recruitment. Those two students — Tyler Sanders and Grace Williams — not only succeeded in boosting interest in the program on campus, they also were among the chosen few accepted into the Teach for America program. While Sanders has the epitome of an urban teaching experience, Williams is teaching ninth-grade English in Helena, AR, in the Mississippi Delta.
Teach for America began as the senior thesis of Princeton student Wendy Kopp. Concerned about the inequities in education in this country, especially the poor quality of schools in low-income neighborhoods, she developed a plan that would recruit top college students to commit two years to teaching in our nation’s under-resourced schools. And she secured seed money from the Mobil Corporation to fund this initiative, a domestic Peace Corps of teachers. Today, it is funded by private and public monies.
A Culture of Service
Teach for America started with 500 teachers in 1990. By 1992 the organization had recruited its first Rhodes graduate: Kelly Garrett, from the Rhodes class of ’92. Since serving with Teach for America in Houston, Garrett has founded and directed two inner-city schools based on the premise that all children can learn given the right tools. One of his creations was Chrysalis Middle School, a charter school in a poor Hispanic neighborhood near downtown Houston. Another was the Perea School, a preschool located in a disadvantaged area of north Memphis.
Since Garrett’s TFA tenure, Rhodes students’ participation in Teach for America has steadily grown. Many believe the rise results from the college’s robust service culture as well as the strong liberal arts emphasis, (Only two percent of those accepted into the program last year were education majors.)
“I think that Rhodes students are drawn to something like this because of the emphasis on service (at the college),” says Grace Williams, who headed the College Democrats chapter on campus. Her liberal arts background and the stringent degree requirements at Rhodes were also a “huge advantage,” she believes. “I can help my kids with their math homework as well as their English.”
“I felt like I’d grown up with a lot on my plate and I wanted to give something back. I felt like it was the most important thing I could be doing right now,” explains Alison Stohr, who teaches sixth- and seventh- graders at a small (by New York City standards) middle school in the city’s Washington Heights section. Stohr, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, did volunteer work at Vance Middle School and Snowden School as a student at Rhodes.
Sara Davis, a product of Memphis City Schools who is now teaching strategic reading classes to ninth- graders at an overcrowded school in downtown New Orleans, believes: “The atmosphere (at Rhodes) was right for social change. When you apply to Teach for America, you are stating that you recognize there is educational inequality in this country that should not exist, and that you want to take action to eliminate it.”
Amanda Abrams, who is teaching second grade in the Mississippi Delta town of Marianna, AR, can already see the results of her presence.
“I’ve had the opportunity to come into a community where there’s a definite need,” notes Abrams, who served as president of the Black Student Association her junior year and as a student member of the Rhodes board as a senior. She was surprised initially at her students’ acceptance of hard work, she says. “They want to do so much that it keeps pushing me to do more and more.”
And classroom instruction is only a portion of what these dedicated teachers are giving back to their respective schools and students. After the last class bell rings, some — like Abrams — tutor in after-school programs. Alison Stohr has started a film club with two other teachers at her predominantly Hispanic middle school.
Grace Williams in Helena, AR, has agreed to sponsor the literary magazine and teach the enrichment program in drama for the high school. Stu Johnston is coach for the MathCounts team at his school, while also working on his M.A. in teaching at Johns Hopkins University. Julie Hallums spends her out-of-class hours visiting the homes of her third-grade students. She’s made it to all 26, “to show that I’m here to stay for a long time and that I do care.” She also awards points to teams of students who exhibit good behavior, treating the winners to a Friday afternoon movie outing.
Perhaps a bit idealized in the promotion process, the Teach for America experience comes recommended by most of the Rhodes participants. However, it is not a stop-gap measure to bridge the years between college and graduate school, the Rhodes alumni advise. Rather, for those with a passion for helping others, it can be a stepping stone for a multitude of careers.
Some of the Rhodes participants are eyeing careers in education, though not all of them plan to remain as teachers. Others are still considering law school and graduate degrees. As Cindy Hallums, down in Roma, TX, notes, the possibilities are endless: “After you do Teach for America, you are prepared to meet any challenge.”
Our Terrific Ten
Thanks to post 9/11 altruism and a tight job market in recent years, applications to Teach for America rose 13 percent during the 2002-03 recruiting period, according to The New York Times. Just 1,700 first-year students were accepted out of 16,000 applicants for the ’03 corps. Of those accepted, the average GPA was 3.5. More than 90 percent held leadership positions at their respective institutions.
Here’s the skinny on the Terrific Ten from the Rhodes class of ’03:
Amanda AbramsTeaching Assignment: Whitten Elementary, Lee County Schools, AR, second grade
Major: political science with urban studies minor
College Achievements: President, Black Student Association; Student Representative to the Rhodes Board of Trustees
Teaching Assignment: John MacDonough Middle School in New Orleans, ninth grade, reading enrichment
Major: English with a French and art minor
College Achievements: Volunteer, Reading Renaissance at Snowden School
Teaching Assignment:: Special Education/Reading, Roma, TX (Rio Grande Valley)
Major: Spanish with a Women’s Studies Minor
College Achievements: Kappa Delta Sorority, Officer; Co-founder, Java Jive (a weeknight Rhodes coffee shop program featuring music, speakers); Volunteer with LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center, Meals on Wheels
Teaching Assignment: third grade bilingual, Kanoon Elementary School, Inner-City Chicago.
College Achievements: Vice President, Kappa Delta Sorority; Co-founder, Java Jive (a weeknight Rhodes coffee shop program featuring music, speakers); Volunteer with Read With Me Program; tutoring at an area high school and teaching English as a second language at a nearby United Methodist Church; intern, Abused Women’s Shelter
Teaching Assignment: Booker T. Washington Middle School, Baltimore, seventh grade science
College Achievements: President, Honor Council; Burch Scholar; Volunteer Coordinator, After-School Program at Snowden School; Participant in Rhodes’ Tex-Mex Mission Program
Teaching Assignment: Harwell Middle School, Edinburg, TX, Sixth through Eighth Grades Special Education (“Resource” or “Basic English”)
College Major: Latin American Studies with minors in Spanish, Business Admin.
Achievements/Activities: Phi Beta Kappa; Rhodes Men’s Soccer, co-captain junior and senior years, team MVP 2002 season; First team all SCAC performer 2002; COSIDA Verizon Academic All American All-District IV Second Team 2002; Second Team NSCAA/Adidas Scholar All-South Second Team (2002)
Teaching Assignment: Jackson Middle School, Houston, Eighth Grade Language Arts
College Achievements: Treasurer, Mortar Board; Steering Committee, Tex-Mex Mission Trip; Resident Adviser
Teaching Assignment: P.S. (Primary School) 226, the Nadia J. Pagan School, the Bronx, N.Y., First Grade
Major: Political Science/History
College Achievements: President, Rhodes Student Government; Student Representative, Rhodes Board of Trustees; Kinney Program, Co-moderator; Co-founder of the Wooddale ACT program providing ACT prep and training to high school students; Intern, KIPP Charter School in Memphis; Campus coordinator for Teach for America.
Teaching Assignment: I.S. (Intermediate School) 528, the Bea Fuller Rodgers School, Washington Heights area of New York City; Sixth- and Seventh-Grade English
Major: English/Fiction Writing with a minor in Spanish College Achievements: Member, Omicron Delta Kappa leadership fraternity and Phi Beta Kappa; Officer, Chi Omega Sorority; Vice President, English honorary society; Volunteer tutor, Vance Middle School.
On maintaining control in the classroom: “You have control over whether things turn into chaos. So the calmer you stay, the better things will go in your classroom. I have the ability to stay calm, no matter what is going on.”
Teaching Assignment: Central High School, Helena, AR, ninth-grade English
College Achievements: Head of Rhodes Chapter of College Democrats, Campus Coordinator for Teach for America