This article was published in the Summer 2013 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Meg Cullar.
Baylor graduates in Teach for America are on a mission – both in the classroom and on a bigger stage
The sign behind Kelsey Riley’s desk reads, “BELIEVE.” And believe she does. The 2011 Baylor graduate teaches English in a high-poverty, rural high school along the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas.
High poverty levels correlate statistically to low student achievement, but Riley said that her students — even the ones who are year behind in their reading skills — truly want to learn.
“My students have a thirst for knowledge,” she said.
And the students say they like Riley’s class, even though some don’t necessarily like reading and writing. Junior Keristen Bennett said, “She’s a younger teacher, so she’s giving us some more ideas and experience that we need to learn better. When she walks in the room, you’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks like a fun classroom.’”
It is no accident that Riley and her youthful enthusiasm landed at Central High School in the Helena-West Helena school district. She is part of Teach For America (TFA), a program designed to put new college graduates into public schools with high-poverty populations. The organization, which is part of AmeriCorps, recruits non-education majors and gives them a crash course in teaching the summer after graduation. Then they are hired directly by the various schools and districts that are TFA partners. TFA teachers benefit from AmeriCorps educational grants for each year they teach and can defer student loans while in TFA. Almost all of them teach in high-density urban settings or in rural towns.
During the 2012-13 academic year, there were thirty Baylor graduates in the classroom through TFA and forty-nine who are TFA alumni. For the coming year, TFAs Baylor recruiter Rachel Harpster expects the numbers will go up. “We had more than a hundred applications this year,” Harpster said of Baylor. She anticipated about twenty new Baylor alumni joining TFA in 2013.
“I love recruiting at Baylor, because everything I’m looking for is part of the core values in the Baylor community,“ Harpster said. “Every student I talk to at Baylor has experience volunteering in the community.”
A native of Little Rock, Riley feels at home at Central High, which had six other TFA teachers for 2012-13. The rest of the TFA teachers are from far away, so the students are always surprised to learn that Miss Riley—with her sweet southern accent that sounds so much like their own—is part of TFA.
Riley said the reading levels for her eleventh-grade students range from first grade to college. Now in her second year, Riley said, “I’ve become way more honest. I tell them, ‘You came to my class without the skills that you needed. None of us wanted that. I didn’t want that for you. You didn’t want that for yourself, but it is what it is, so we have to work twice as hard.’ And so they work hard.”
Riley applied to be a kindergarten teacher. “Then I got placed in high school, and I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, have mercy,'” she said. “They are all way bigger than I am.”
At five-foot-one, Riley looks like a student herself. But she has control of her classroom and has developed rewards and consequences to motivate her students. She planned a day for the students to perform their original poetry as a reward after they finished state testing. They said they liked to express their feelings through writing, as opposed to “essays and paragraphs and narrative and all that stuff.” Themes of their poetry included a dislike of school rules, desires to succeed and graduate, and the challenges of parenthood.
Riley went easy on the grammar for the poetry assignment, but students were expected to pay attention to each other and use “appropriate” language, as always.
“I don’t talk ugly at my students, and I expect them to show the same respect,” she said. But when Riley’s eyebrows go up and her chin goes down, somebody on the other end of that look had better straighten up.
“My students know that I am invested in who they are as people,” she said, “and that I want them to grow as individuals in my classroom—just as much as I want them to know who Shakespeare is.”
Riley teaches seven classes a day—with seniors in AP English first period and juniors the rest of the day. She has about 130 students total, and usually has less than twenty at a time. She also works in the after-school program, offering remediation and enrichment one on one.
Central High senior Bri’ana Meriweather plans to be a dentist but took AP English mostly to be in Riley’s class. “I can talk to her about anything—that’s what I love about her,” Meriweather said. “And I’m a good writer now—she’s an extremely good teacher.”
“I would rather teach English than anything else,” said Riley, who was a journalism and public relations major at Baylor. “In math, you don’t really have conversations about life, but you do in English class.”
Riley will stay at Central an extra year after her two-year TFA commitment. But she has been accepted to a master’s program in education in community development action at Vanderbilt, so in 2014, she will leave for Nashville.
That’s one reason not all traditional educators are 100 percent sold on TFA. Monica McMurray, the principal at Central High, said that Teach for America teachers are great, but that she would prefer to hire certified teachers who would stay long term. “I love Teach for America, but I’m a traditional teacher,” she said. “I came through the traditional ranks, so what I have seen—and the data shows this—it hurts us in the long run . . . because people move on, be it to other areas or to go back and start another career or get another degree.”
McMurray said she is trying to improve the school enough that certified teachers will come—and stay.
TFA recruiter Harpster said the organization works with schools that cannot attract enough traditional teachers. “Especially in math and science, we are filling vacancies that are not being filled otherwise,” she said.
Harpster said that the national average for teacher retention after the first year is 86 percent, and it’s 83 percent for teachers at low-income schools. She said TFAs retention rate for completing the two-year commitment is 90 percent. TFA’s statistics indicate that 66 percent of participants stay in the field of education, including those who are studying education in graduate school or working in policy and administration.
Tommy Micah ’09 also entered TFA to make a difference. He wanted to work with children while taking a break from school, intending to eventually pursue a PhD and specialize in play therapy for students with autism.
“I wasn’t an education major, but I thought I could be an effective teacher,” he said. “I saw TFA as a way to effect change in the lives of students for two years. That was my original thought.”
But Micah is still in the classroom, and he loves every moment of it.
“Teach for America changed my trajectory in my professional and personal life,” Micah said. “I am in my fourth year of teaching. I will be my grade team leader next year and intend to apply for a job as vice principal. I want to stay in education.”
Micah taught first grade in a public charter school on Chicago’s South Side for TFA and was able to earn a master’s degree in education during that time. Now he is teaching kindergarten at Achievement First East New York Elementary School in Brooklyn, also a public charter school.
Micah loves teaching kindergarten because that’s where students learn to read, write, count, and get along with others—life’s biggest lessons.
“Everybody remembers their kindergarten and first-grade teacher,” he said. “And I want to be a role model for my students. I want my students to see me as this African-American male—their classroom teacher—doing great things and teaching them great lifelong lessons that they will keep with them forever.”
Micah said he has seen how complicated it is to achieve success in high-poverty schools, even when the problem might be simple. During his first year in TFA, a little boy was struggling academically and missing a lot of school. “I finally figured out the reason he wasn’t there was a transportation issue,” Micah said. “Once we got busing for Marcus, I was amazed to see the progress. He blossomed and flourished. On the last day of school, he gave me this huge hug.”
Many TFA teachers find that their life plans are changed in more subtle ways. Ariel Stevenson ’12 is teaching sixth grade social studies in Frank Black Middle School in Houston. She always planned to go to law school, but when she learned about TFA, she decided to apply. As a student, she had worked in Mission Waco and did some research on education policy, so she thought teaching would be a good experience. “I knew it would help my credentials, and I liked the idea of getting to help these kids,” she said.
While TFA provides a lot of support, like a men-tor throughout the year, Stevenson said, “There is almost nothing that can prepare you for how hard it actually is. I was expecting to be a teacher, but I wasn’t expecting to be a parent for them. They haven’t been taught how to be respectful, so you end up teaching behavioral and life skills.”
Stevenson said behavior management is her biggest challenge, and she will never forget the first fight in her classroom. “Luckily, both of [the students] are really small, so I just had to get close to them and yell for them to stop, and they broke up,” she said.
Stevenson’s favorite moments are “when you can see that light bulb go off,” she said, “or when you see them turn around and say, ‘Please be quiet,’ instead of, ‘Shut up.'” Stevenson still plans to go to law school, which she thinks will be a breeze after her TFA experience. But now she thinks she will delve into educational policy.
Not all TFA participants feel the classroom is the right place, even short term. Daniel Blauser ’11 left TFA after a year, because he didn’t believe that his presence was the best thing for his students. He taught seventh-grade social studies in Phoenix, Arizona, and said that classroom management in an overcrowded room was his biggest challenge.
“Talk to any teacher, and they will tell you there’s a world of difference between twenty and forty students,” he said. Blauser said that the TFA summer program was a good preparation and that he was good at developing lessons plans. ‘A lot of things you’d like to do, but you can’t if your students aren’t on task. And if they aren’t, it’s your fault.”
Blauser said he joined TFA because he really believed in the mission that every student deserves an equal educational opportunity. “But after a year, I wasn’t living up to my own standards,” he said. “I might have been better my second year, but it still would not have been what they needed.” By leaving, he said, he opened a spot for the school to find someone else.
“I liked my students,” Blauser said, “even the ones with the worst behavior problems. Every one of them cared about school, and every one wanted to do better.”
But many needed one-on-one help. “If I stopped to help someone, that would be when things would happen. With forty students, it can devolve into Lord of the Flies,” he said.
Blauser said any regret he feels is for his students, not for himself. “I still believe TFA is a great program,” he said. He’s now looking to change the world in other ways, taking some classes before applying for a graduate program in foreign service. He’s a certified teacher, but he’s working part time as a waiter, because the schedule is better for school and it pays better than substitute teaching.
Changed for good
Career plans often change for TFA teachers, said Shana Walsh, who is currently a PhD candidate in Baylor’s School of Education and served as a TFA teacher from 2009-11. A graduate of Syracuse, she came to Baylor to work with Dr. Renee Umstattd Meyer ‘oo, an assistant professor whose research interests include health disparities.
Walsh’s interest in health education developed during her time in TFA. When she arrived in a Mississippi town of about twenty-five hundred, the New York City native had never even been in a pick-up truck. “I’m so glad I went to a rural place,” she said. “Rural and urban problems are so different.”
She said most of her female students had children, but they had no health background or education. She incorporated physical activity into her Spanish class, but was shocked at the lack of access to health and nutrition information.
Walsh’s experience in TFA was a plus when she applied to study at Baylor, Meyer said. “Knowing that she had the classroom management skills was a positive,” Meyer said. “And I do research about health disparities, so I knew that her experience would translate.”
Walsh said she knew that TFA would look good on her résumé, because TFA recruits students with high GPAs and leadership experience. But you’d be crazy to use it as a résumé builder, she said.
“You really have to be committed,” she said. “It’s still two years of your life, and it’s an intense experience—you can’t get through it if you don’t really want it.”
TFA looks for people who have a passion for eliminating educational disparities, Walsh said. “They know that not everyone is going to stay in education, but they know these two years will change you,” she said.
Central High School in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, is on the mend, according to the principal. The graduating class this year was 117, and 51 percent of those were accepted to college or the military—a huge improvement over previous years. One reason that Kelsey Riley wanted to stay an additional year after TFA was to see this year’s junior class through to graduation. And Riley says that, after graduate school, she would like to return to this very school some day.
She said one of her biggest challenges has been dealing with things that are out of her control. “Outside of my four walls, things happen,” she said.
She chose the degree program at Vanderbilt because it focuses on the impact of schools in their communities, and she wants to help a community through its schools. “I have experienced the day-to-day struggles of a failing school district and constantly witness the negative relationship between the community and its schools,” she said.
“I do my best to hold my students accountable for who they are inside and outside of my class-room,” she said. “My goal is for them to feel proud of themselves and what they are learning. If they all left my room loving to learn, then I’ll be happy.”
Tommy Micah also plans on more graduate study—eventually. While at Baylor, he worked in the Texas Legislature for a semester through the Bullock Scholars Program, and he still feels an affinity for policy work—but only education policy. His life’s work will always be in the education field, he said.
“A lot of things need to change,” he said about the nation’s educational system. “But, with us all working together and putting our minds together and making difficult decisions, it can be done.”