Class Notes

Teach for America

By Paula Marantz Cohen | November 8, 2011


My husband and I recently went to visit our daughter, who just started a stint with Teach for America in southern Arkansas. A day-long odyssey from Philadelphia finally got us to the large, ramshackle house which Kate and five other TFA recruits had rented for the duration of their two-year teaching commitment. All six of them are from the Northeast, still dazzled by the fact that they had secured a mansion—albeit of the Addams-family variety—for $150 a month each.

To New Yorkers who lived in exile in the Philadelphia suburbs for 30 years, southern Arkansas seemed like another country. You have to drive two hours if you want the luxury of a Red Lobster. Walmart is the source of all commodities (and seems to carry most anything anyone would ever need). The local pharmacist looked at our daughter when he found out where she was from and said: “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

The area clearly suffers from low self-esteem, unsurprising since half the population is in poverty. One of the reasons Kate was assigned to her high school was because they couldn’t find anyone to teach chemistry and physics. Her job is both to teach these subjects (as well as five classes of physical science) and to get students to think better of themselves and aspire to things beyond what they know. The superintendent who hired her said he liked that she came from the North and, even more, that she had traveled to other countries and could share her sense of the wider world.

Kate and her roommates have already adopted the “yes, ma’am, no sir” mode of response favored in the Deep South—and are enthusiastic not only about the house, but about the niceness of the local people and the excellence of the catfish and ribs at local eateries. What most struck us, however, is their enthusiasm for their students. Despite having spent two months learning how to maintain discipline, prepare lesson plans, and set and assess goals, what they were most interested in talking about were the kids in their classes. They were, quite simply, charmed by them. And that, after all, is half the battle of teaching. First, one must like kids and see in them something worthy, some image of one’s own best self.

Kate confessed that she has a predilection for the troublemakers in her classes. She thinks it shows intelligence to want to resist authority. She had been a minor troublemaker in high school, but got away with it because of good grades. We had drummed into her that high achievement was expected, and we would not stand for less. Many of her students did not grow up with these expectations, and she is hoping to supply them (an irony not lost on us: that our daughter, subject to our nagging, would now be nagging others). She has already singled out a few kids who need encouragement; a few who need to be pushed; and a few who need to be yelled at.

They say that TFA drop-out rates are high and that those who make it to the end of their two years are often burned out and disillusioned. The group I met during our visit was full of energy and enthusiasm, but they had only taught for two weeks, so I’ll have to check out their attitude when more time has elapsed. I plan to report back.

I should note that Kate was initially referred to by her students as “the teacher from the North,” but since she has also signed on to coach the high school tennis team, she is now referred to as “coach,” the highest of honorifics in the area and one that suggests she’ll get along okay in southern Arkansas.

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