Two years with Teach For America challenge new alumni and the students they reach.
The October after his graduation from the College of Arts and Science was arguably one of the darkest months in Jake Ramsey’s life.
Teaching math at Nashville’s Maplewood High School through nonprofit organization Teach For America, Ramsey, BA’09, had reached the phase of working in a high-poverty setting that might be labeled “despair.”
Less than a third of his students could add or subtract negative numbers, though they weren’t far from his own age. Gang members sorted out grievances with a razor fight. One student—who had taken honors geography—called Florida another country.
“Seeing students achieve in individual classrooms over the short term gives me hope and evidence that we can close the achievement gap in the long term.”
—Taylor Imboden Brown, BA’08
The economics major was learning, all too well, the unspoken agreement present in many classrooms and one which affected his ability to teach: “It goes like this,” Ramsey says. “ ‘I won’t make you do any real work, or stress you in any way, and you don’t misbehave.’ ”
Sure enough, the Teach For America corps member—one of thousands who make a two-year commitment annually toward closing the achievement gap of low-income students by teaching in high-need areas—had moved beyond his initial phase of excitement. It had been followed by disillusionment. The idea of rejuvenation seemed as far away as the possibility of graduation for a high school class with an average grade of 43 out of 100.
“For the first time, I couldn’t work hard enough to make things happen,” he says. “But the beauty of Teach For America is that you cannot participate in this—you cannot survive those two years—and not be forever changed. You cannot come to know these kids in such a way as I have and not care about education for the rest of your life.”
Highest of Expectations
During his two-year stint, Ramsey discovered what many Teach For America alumni do: that investment and belief in students can make a remarkable difference in grades, attitudes and outcomes. Studies consistently show that Teach For America teachers—most of them prepared only by a six-week intensive summer training program rather than a four-year degree in education—have an impact on student achievement that’s equal or greater to traditional first-year teachers. The large majority of TFA teachers take part in the 20-year-0ld program immediately after graduation, when the idealistic incentive to change the world might peak.
“…in one year, we needed to make two years’ worth of progress.”
—Matthew Specht, BA’09
TFA teachers receive one-on-one mentoring in addition to first-year teacher pay and benefits, and two-thirds end up staying in education, “with the largest portion of that group as classroom teachers,” says Taylor Imboden Brown, BA’08. Brown, a communication studies major, was so inspired by her own TFA experience in St. Louis that she became a manager of teacher leadership development for the program, now offering ongoing training and support to 35 corps members.
“My two years in the classroom showed me the importance of always holding myself and my students to the highest of expectations—academic and otherwise,” she says. “Seeing students achieve in individual classrooms over the short term gives me hope and evidence that we can close the achievement gap in the long term.”
Brown is far from alone in her beliefs—and she and Ramsey are far from alone in crediting the College of Arts and Science for aiding in their success.
TFA seeks out participants with demonstrated leadership and achievement among other attributes, and often draws highly motivated and successful students as a result. Add in the fact that, the former students say, Vanderbilt strongly encouraged them to give back through community service, think critically and strategically as part of a larger group, excel in challenging environments, interact with diverse populations, and be involved in numerous areas simultaneously, and it’s no real wonder that the school is among the
top contributors of graduates to the program in the country. In 2011, Vanderbilt placed seventh among medium-sized college and university contributors, with 47 graduates headed for TFA placements last fall.
“It Was Terrifying”
“There’s no doubt that students in these underserved communities lack a lot of skills we take for granted,” says Matthew Specht, BA’09, a political science major who taught math to fourth- through eighth-grade students in Kansas City. “Especially if you’ve gone to Vanderbilt, you’ve probably seen success academically. You’ve probably gone to good schools. For me, seeing seventh and eighth graders struggling to subtract with borrowing was humbling. But it gave me that much more motivation, recognizing that in one year, we needed to make two years’ worth of progress.”
“For the first time, I couldn’t work hard enough to make things happen.”
—Jake Ramsey, BA’09
Outside of the classroom, Specht says, “it’s very difficult to have an appreciation for how many moving parts there are in a day of teaching, whether planning lessons or units, or just planning for 150 students who come through 25 at a time. The goal is not to have a relationship with one class, but with each of the 25 students in that class. You don’t give attention to that one entity, but to building relationships with every single one, every single day.”
As such, TFA teachers recount endless hours spent before and after school with students and parents, doing whatever they could to make a difference. Ramsey recalls being shocked early on when a student told him he’d seen more of Ramsey than his father in the previous three years. “I asked the class who else that was true for, and 80 percent of the hands went up,” he says. “It was terrifying. They were seeing me for an hour and a half every day. Even if they had dads at home, they were working hard hours and asleep when the kids were awake.”
Huge Sense of Responsibility
Miron Klimkowski, BA’10, just finished his first year as a ninth-grade English teacher in Dallas. The political science major hadn’t really considered a job in education, he says, but an Alternative Spring Break project opened his eyes to the possibility. He spent ASB as a teacher’s assistant in a Rome, Ga., elementary school, and loved the experience. “I saw the impact that I could make in just one week. I had a couple of friends who had done Teach For America, so most of my senior year I knew I was going to do it,” he says. He was fortunate, he says, to have had great teachers growing up in the Memphis public school system, teachers who instilled a pay-it-forward attitude. But nothing could really prepare him for what TFA would be.
“I had to grow up really fast,” he says. “The gravity of the achievement gap becomes real to you, and you start to feel this huge sense of responsibility. Now it’s my job.… But they were all such great kids. There wasn’t one that I didn’t like. And that impassioned me to work all the harder for them.”
Although Klimkowski says it’s too early to tell whether he’ll keep teaching after the program is over, other TFA participants have continued in education. Specht has deferred his enrollment in law school to work at a New York City charter school. Ramsey is a teacher at KIPP Academy, a college preparatory public charter school in Nashville, and is pondering fundraising for education or possibly starting his own school. And English major Neily Todd, BA’09, says her time teaching algebra in Nashville has led to a solid commitment to continue the work she began with TFA. She, too, teaches math at KIPP Academy.
“When you’re in college, so much of your day-to-day life is about you, your classes, your grades, your studies, what you want to do,” she says. “That’s just that phase of life. But having had this experience, working with these students, I go through my day now thinking about what’s best for them, and how I can teach them things in a way that they’ll understand.
“There’s such a deeper sense of contentment now that my life is more than about just me, and that my actions are impacting others in a positive way,” Todd says. “When I got into Teach For America, I really did believe that all students can learn. And after two years in the classroom, I know that all students can learn. It’s been a cool experience to see that this is true.”
photo credit: Joe Howell, John Russell