At 7:00 p.m. last Thursday, the Teach for America organization was featured in Goergen Hall to communicate to the UR community its salient mission statement and to hopefully recruit undergraduates who were motivated to level the playing field of social and educational inequity plaguing many of the nation’s children. With the help of Jesse Stewart, the Recruitment Director for the New Jersey/New York Teach for America Recruitment team, a panel of five UR alumni returned to the river campus to share their experiences in the corps and to delineate how they have continued to affect change at all levels of educational reform since their involvement in the effort. The panel consisted of the following individuals: President of David S. Lapine Co. Inc, Noah Lapine, ’00 UR Medical School alum and family physician at Bakersville Community Medical Clinic Steve North, M.D., Ph.D. Candidate in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lisa Marshall and JD/MPP Candidate at Duke University Matt Wolfe. Students who attended the event were able to hear the panel answer a series of questions prompted by both Stewart and the audience while simultaneously enjoying their complementary dinners from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
Teach for America is a national organization founded to eliminate one of our nation’s more egregious injustices: education inequity. The opportunity for children to obtain a comprehensive education clearly requires funds and exemplary teachers from the start; however, the integral component of establishing educational equality is protracted systemic change that is currently being hindered in many areas of the nation by the vicious cycle of poverty, of which education is an inevitable outcropping. In attempts to assure excellent education for children mired in destitution, Teach for America strives to harness and implement the skills and talents of the nation’s most promising future leaders and place them in a classroom for two years where their actions and aptitude will have an immediate impact on the lives of children from low-income communities who are nearly three to four grade levels below the national average. Those typically hired for the effort are recent college graduates and professionals – individuals of all academic majors, career interests and backgrounds – who are willing to selflessly commit two years to teach in low-income communities and become lifelong leaders in pursuit of educational excellence and equity.
The panel provided acute insight into the advantages and drawbacks of embarking on this path with the support of unique personal experiences and anecdotes. Numerous stories revolved around a pivotal question, “What would you say was a typical day in the classroom?” The panelists, through their anecdotes, reached the general consensus that each day was disparate from the next, each hour revealing new variables that were out of his and her control. The transition from an undergraduate college career to complete immersion in a pedagogical environment was daunting and certainly challenging. Lepine commented that certain days were “scary, just really scary.”
Wolfe ventured to reveal how on certain days he felt as if “a carpet was being pulled from under his feet.” As the teacher in the classroom, there was no set standard of stability, no defined way to deal with emotional situations. Many times, pockets of lows engulfed the teachers where academic progress seemed impossible to attain due to lack of cooperation from the school administration, fluctuating class sizes and disobliging students.
However, despite these adversities, the panelists, through their experiences, learned how to channel the tribulations the children faced at home and their community out of the classroom.
The classroom evolved into a safe, insular haven for the children, and the alumni nostalgically recalled the ephemeral moments when they experienced their relationships with their students blossom and strengthen as both the children and the panelists learned mutual trust and respect.
The panelists all agreed that, ultimately, regardless of the vocational path each chose to pursue, they couldn’t help but be profoundly affected and changed by their roles in Teach for America. They learned to embrace the humility associated with placing themselves in situations rife with discomfort and constant edification. Their resolve to achieve their ambitions were sharpened, their perspectives broadened and their communication skills ameliorated. As Wolfe cogently commented, “As an alumni of Teach for America, you can never abandon the mission.” Whether the panelists went on to become doctors, researchers, graduate students or executives in companies, the two years they spend in low-financed school districts constantly reminds them of the blatant fact that world we inhabit today is not a mere backdrop of black and white, but an amalgamation of smaller facets that compose a bigger picture. They experienced the ineffable gratification of raising the reading and mathematics percentiles of their students by an impressive 80 percent, of connecting with children on many new levels and coming away with the confidence, maturity, unique credibility and, most importantly, the practical skills that will enable them to make a huge impact in both their personal and professional lives.
Venkateswaran is a member of the class of 2011.