Back to the classroom: Alumni Teach for America

Everyday while Williams students trek from class to class across a postcard landscape, crowd the dining halls and cram for tests, a handful of driven Williams alumni venture into classrooms in some of the most depressed corners of the nation. These participants in Teach for America (TFA) are teachers, visionaries and activists who deal directly with inequalities in public education who have the long-term goal of improving this country’s educational system. Through direct help, the alums seek to meet the vision of the TFA, that “One day, all children in our nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent educatin.”

“One of the things that attracts Teach for America to recent college graduates is that they’re behind the idea, they have some idealism, and their youthful energy and enthusiasm kind of rubs off on their students,” said Trevor Murphy, an Instructional Technology Specialist at Jesup Hall. TFA is also beneficial for students who are interested in teaching experience. “If you’re interested in teaching, Teach for America is the way to go for Williams students,” said Paola Gentry ’98.

Both Gentry and Murphy taught in rural North Carolina for two years, the required term for teachers. Cyd Fremmer ’98 worked in the Rio Grande Valley, and Emily Williams ’99 and Caitlin O’Donnell ’99 gained experience in the Mississippi River Delta.

Participants’motivations for committing to TFA vary. For Fremmer, “The distance of academia troubled and frustrated me, and I wanted to try direct service?and see where I came out.” O’Donnell shared similar sentiments. “I was beginning to get restless at college. I wanted to be useful, to do something for someone besides myself.” Williams wanted a challenge. “I thought of the experience as something that would be extremely hard. I wanted that.” Like many students who apply for TFA, Gentry wanted to be a teacher. “It was a great opportunity for me.” Since TFA does not require teacher certification, this service-oriented program becomes appealing route for future teachers. “I don’t feel like I was at a disadvantage without certification. Williams gives you all the fundamentals,” Gentry said. Sergio Espinosa ’02, who is applying for TFA, has wanted to be a teacher since high school. “Teach for America, hopefully, will make that hope a reality,” he said.

Before they join TFA, hopefuls must undergo a lengthy application process, including paperwork, essays, interviews, and presentations. “Applying to TFA is similar to applying for college,” said Williams. “To apply to TFA and hear so much about how competitive it is, and feel like you’ll never be accepted?and then if you are accepted, you get showered with mail begging you to actually do it. It seems like they realize that once you’re accepted, you might think twice about actually moving to rural Mississippi and teaching for two years.”

The greater ordeal, though, is the five intense weeks of training the undergone by those who are accepted. Training for many Williams alums took place in Houston, Texas. “During those five weeks, we didn’t get much sleep, we didn’t have anything good to eat and we did not have many feelings of success,” Williams said. With “lots of workshops, lots of planning, lots of hours,” and “bad food, humid weather,” and “over-air-conditioned dorms,” Fremmer said, “They call the Institute “boot camp” for good reason.” Said O’Donnell, “The Teach for America Summer Institute is a rigorous crash-course oriented specifically towards the demands of teaching in an under-resourced school. It prepared you to persist despite being unprepared.” Participants saw their training as informative, in a removed setting. “I learned so much about modalities of learning, good ways of grading, reading strategies, learning disabilities, special education, cooperative learning ? I gained an entirely new vocabulary that informed every lesson I planned,” said Fremmer.

As for the real experience of moving to a location in the rural South and taking on a room full of energetic youngsters, “There is no way to prepare for your first year of teaching,” said Williams. “The first day of class your first year of teaching is probably the most terrifying thing you will ever experience,” Fremmer said. “Nervous doesn’t touch it,” said O’Donnell. Murphy dealt with some especially bold students his first year. “Sometimes students will try to run teachers out of the classroom?The fact that they made a teacher quit is like a pastime,” he said. “You need to convince them that you’re there to stay regardless of what they do.” The first year becomes a trial by ordeal for many TFA participants.

However, “The second year is a thousand times more rewarding,” said Gentry. Following her first year at Bunn Middle School, Gentry saw an improved response in her students. “When I say ?jump,’ they say ?how high, Ms. Gentry, how high?’” One day when her class was especially boisterous, Gentry said, “I got really upset with them?they were just goofing off.” Gentry chastised the class, disdaining their abandoned “thinking caps.” She turned to the board, and the class was silent. “And when I turned around, they all had pieces of paper on their heads, and they were like, ?Ms. Gentry, we have our thinking caps on!’”

Often, the TFA’s vision of granting an excellent education to as many under-privileged children as can be reached could be overwhelming to new teachers. Fremmer thought of the challenge in terms of a marathon. “When I ran in Williamstown, I ran tree to tree. Pick a tree, get close to it, and then pick another 10 feet away. You can go a long way like that…You have to pick your trees in teaching, too,” he said. “Maybe it’s just Friday to Friday. Or Thanksgiving to Christmas. And always in your head is the bigger goal, mile 26.2, and it informs those smaller stretches, but breaking it down is necessary.”

Murphy found that effective ways to reach his students were often outside the classroom, coaching teams, sponsoring clubs, or going to sports events. “You see them, they’re happy to see you, they tell you about it the next day, and maybe they even do their homework,” he said. O’Donnell is working with other TFA volunteers to improve Quitman County Elementary School. “Who can stand the thought of a K-3 grade school that doesn’t have a playground?” Her team is raising $15,000 to build a playground at the school.

These new teachers assuredly emerge from the program stronger and more informed than they were upon beginning it. “After they’re done with Teach for America, they have no problem going to med school or law school,” Murphy said. “They seem to feel that it’s not really all that much work when you compare it to classroom teaching.” O’Donnell, who plans to become a public school teacher, was struck by the inadequacy of schools in the Mississippi River Delta. “I observed the inequalities of our current system of public education first-hand,” she said. “I began to understand the magnitude of my students’ personal challenges, but I also came to appreciate all the ways in which they were just like any other normal, adorable, hilarious children.” The concept of injustice especially impacted Williams. “I didn’t earn or deserve all the choices I was given from the moment I was born,” she said. “Nor do my students deserve the lives that they’ve been born into. I am in a position to do something, to make things a little better.”

According to Cyd Fremmer, “It is the most important lesson, I think, that the impossible is possible, that you can do more than you think yourself capable of, and that fear should be an incentive, not a deterrent.”

O’Donnell recalled a defining moment when the founder of TFA closed her five weeks of training with a challenge to improve the educational horizons of children in this country. “Wendy Kopp gave a speech at the end of our institute in which she said, ?Good is not good enough.’” And she was right.”