After graduating with English degrees, Stephen Courchane (BA 2009) and Ryan Magee (BA 2008) are among the 15 percent selected this year from over 35,000 applicants for Teach for America. The program places high-achieving college grads into academically challenged public schools for two-year teaching stints. The goal? To do a crisis-intervention on the disparity in achievement amongst American children according to ethnicity and social class. Acceptance meant that Magee and Courchane spent five weeks this past summer away from home working 17 hour days at a TFA training boot camp. A TFA Summer Institute experience consists of learning sessions, in-class teacher training (see photo of Courchane's classroom), meetings with fellow teachers-in-training or "collabs," instruction from a Corps member advisor, constant lesson-planning, and writing assignments from TFA, along with, as our two initiates note, the unnerving realization that some students are so far behind you might as well bury that first lesson plan.
Having weathered the storm, Courchane and Magee are now teaching full-time, the former assigned to third grade at Pinedale Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida, the latter ninth and eleventh grade Language Arts on the Zuni Pueblo, about 40 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico. Because they are friends from their U days, we asked them to participate in a co-interview.
What led you to apply for Teach for America? What do you hope to accomplish--both for your students and for yourself?
RM: The first time I truly thought hard about the program came when I actually spent a summer in Minnesota working for a non-profit program called Tree Trust, which paired high school youth up with young adults like myself working on landscaping projects in parks and community areas throughout the Minneapolis/Saint Paul region. Working with those kids that summer, most of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds and were ethnic minorities, I began to see firsthand just how unequal the education level truly was. Startling realizations like "Only two of my 15 kids can read a tape measure" and "Most of my kids cannot complete their multiplication tables" blew me away. After working with those kids--kids I know were intelligent, motivated individuals who just needed the proper education to set them up for future success--I knew that TFA was a great opportunity for me to do my part in making a difference, no matter how small.
SC: I applied to TFA because I believed that there was educational inequality, and I wanted to change that. I also applied because I had had such a wonderful education all my life and wanted to give back. I really hoped to change the lives and the life outcomes of my students. I also wanted to get out into the real world and do something I believed in.
What was the most inspiring part of the TFA training--and the most challenging part?
SC: Sometimes the most challenging thing was staying focused and not letting yourself get you down. It was also very challenging to go from no teaching experience into a month-long crash course in everything we needed to know, from behavior management, to planning, to execution, to investment, to delivery, to differentiation, to diversity, etc. At times it was hard not to just shut your brain off from overload and wish you were back home. . . . The most inspiring part of training was the successes in the classrooms with the students. I went from having almost none of my students master my teaching objectives for the day to 13 of my 17 students mastering the objective. One student who called herself dumb and stupid and who would not read for the class actually grew the most of all our kids. On the very last day of school she was reading out loud to all of us as proud as could be. I could not have been more inspired.
RM (see photo, right): All the training, the hard work I put in each evening, each day during my own sessions, the long talks I had with seemingly everyone about teaching . . . and yet it still often felt like I was just ramming myself into a brick wall over and over and over. The fact that I was still a new teacher (read: a bad teacher) jarred me, especially when I could see just how much these kids needed to be taught and how little time I had with them. That perhaps was the toughest piece of all--knowing how much more the students needed to learn and not knowing how to help them more. The best part, in contrast, was when I got to see the students' progress in class and in their work. When I think back and remember everything that my students were able to do after my class that they had not been able to do before, from little things like grammar and punctuation to actually being able to finally explain why something was important in a story, I still get the warm fuzzies.
SC: You're right, Ryan. I know that there were some students this summer who I helped grow a great deal, but because I had not yet covered all the material I was unable to get them as far as I could have. Now that I have completed training, however, I feel much more able to give my students this year what they need--or if I am not sure what I can do for them I know where to look for help.
Could you describe a surprising moment or insight you had during your training? Stephen, is it true your first day included a lunch line fist-a-cuffs and a third-grader throwing a punch at you?
SC: He didn't actually hit me, but he did surprise me.
RM: I cannot claim to have had any physical encounters like Stephen experienced, but I did have a couple of moments where I felt completely at a loss as to how to react. Trying to teach students how to analyze the text to determine the theme of "Of Mice and Men," I realized that none of the [rising senior] students had any real idea of what "analysis" was. Previously, analysis had meant re-summarizing the main points of the story. . . . A specific student, who I will call Sam for the sake of anonymity, seemed intelligent, but a quick look at his testing scores, specifically those that required him to do any writing whatsoever, revealed that Sam had serious issues with grammar and basic language structure. When we looked, however, for some sort of IEP or explanation of Sam's evident learning disability, we did not find anything. At the end of the course, Sam tested out with a reading level of approximately second grade; he had been allowed to continue through school for almost an entire decade below level.
SC: Yeah, I had a student who had finished third grade but who had yet to learn how to read basic words such as "cat" or "dog." It was incredible that our education system could allow this child to move on without so much as learning basic letter sounds.
How do you encourage enthusiasm for learning? Is it even possible to inspire it by high school?
SC: With my third graders, some of my favorite kids were the ones who made my life the hardest because of their misbehavior. They all have great hearts, and they all really need and want to learn. Even the ones who seemed like they couldn't stand my presence showed me that they really did appreciate me and what I did for them (even if I think I could have or should have done better).
RM: High school is interesting--I can say from both my experiences this past summer and now here in New Mexico that the achievement gap at the adolescent level is truly terrifying to behold when considering how soon some of these young adults will be living on their own, making their own decisions, and having to be the people in charge. Enthusiasm for learning for high schoolers is certainly one of the biggest issues I face. Some kids are with you from the start; some you can eventually win over; some, well, you fight the same battle with every day. The trick, of course, is investment--showing the kids that they should care, showing them that you care, and trying to help them see how their futures are directly related to what goes in school. If/when that light-bulb goes off, I've done my job.
SC: That's really something that we are trying to do at the young levels of elementary school as well. We made a big deal about it with our kids this summer, and I am going to keep pushing it at my kids this year that college is the goal. I do not remember any of my teachers ever telling me about college in elementary school, but I believe that with the situations these kids are in we need to let them know they have the opportunity to do amazing things if they work hard.
What were the funniest moments of training (perhaps not as funny at the time)?
SC: Standing at six feet seven inches [see photo, right], I heard plenty of comments on my height. The most absurd moment had to be one day when I was walking past the cafeteria and saw a very little second grade girl walking toward me. She stopped and spread her arms and said "What's up, giant!" I kind of yelped something and kept walking.
RM: Perhaps the most absurd moments were those late nights when both my roommate and myself were working furiously--yet seemingly ineffectively--on our lesson plans. We would stop and basically think out loud, "What are we doing here? This is ridiculous." Here I was, instead of enjoying a nice evening back in Minnesota with friends, frantically trying to write a lesson plan that might not work, fatigued, stretched to my limits, stuck in a place where when the sun goes down the temperature still never gets below 95 (I hate Phoenix), all the while knowing that even if I pulled all of this off, and things went decently, the next day I would have to do it again. Of course, I also was getting paid nothing, I lost my wallet at one point, the stress was tantamount to law school (from what I am told), and the reward for making it through was . . . doing it all again, only this time for two years straight. Yeah, I would say that felt pretty absurd.
SC: And not only are you going off to do it again for two years, but you are going off to do it all day rather than just for a few hours!
There have been continuing public disagreements about the effectiveness of Teach for America: some (often teachers' unions) argue that TFA teachers are not trained long enough to teach low-achieving students; the counter-argument is that the need is great and urgent and continuing, despite professional teachers' efforts. Do you feel TFA training prepares you to lead a classroom?
RM: I will be honest: I could be more ready for my classroom, but I would expect that answer from every teacher who ever walked into a school, be it their first or fortieth year. I have lots to learn, doubtless, but TFA could not have done more to set me up to succeed. Not that I won't still get support! My Program Director (PD) is already checking up on me, giving me constructive feedback, and also giving me space when I just need to do my thing. The program here in New Mexico offers me chances to interact with a great group of fellow TFA teachers, learn from each other through planning and sharing of resources, and be a great resource in whatever capacity I need ("Where's the best Mexican place to eat in Gallup?" "Do you want this extra table we have lying around, since your apartment currently has nothing in it?"). I could go on and on . . . .
SC: TFA also has an incredible database of teaching resources that can be downloaded anytime. There are also online tutorials and videos of corps members at work that allow you to troubleshoot anything from routines and procedures to increasing rigor in the classroom. . . . Here in Jacksonville, the Teachers Union is very much in line with TFA, and I am actually a member of that union. The jobs that we take here are jobs that were lost when teachers did not follow through on their certification requirements. There are several corps members who in their first year here last year were able to beat the district record for writing scores on the FCAT and are now the grade level chairs at their schools. There are TFA teachers here who brought their students' reading levels up by 1.7 years of growth (stunning!). There are others here who didn't reach those levels but who did the same job as any other teacher in the district would do.
There is definitely a sense of urgency at all times. One of my favorite quotes from my Curriculum Specialist was "The need is great, and the time is short." We understand that our goals of closing the achievement gap are ambitious (yet feasible) and so we are in the mindset that it is important to move quickly and efficiently: if something isn't working with our students we will adjust course as fast as we can to keep them moving along with the material.
RM: Stephen stole my favorite quote!
That achievement gap has been pretty intractable in Minnesota--what gives you hope it can be surmounted?
RM: The kids themselves. The intelligence you can see, the enthusiasm that some bring, the potential just bursting at the seams . . . it is ever-present, just waiting for someone to help it along.
SC: The stories I have heard and the achievements I have seen with my own eyes. The kids I worked with this summer were behind, but they were plenty smart. I know that all of them could have been at grade level if the education that they had been receiving was more effective. These are kids who want to learn and who can learn but are just not getting the kind of teaching that will get them into college. I really believe that one classroom at a time this gap can and will be closed.
RM: I know I cannot change everything at once, and I know there will be times that I fail, but I truly do believe that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their futures. The gap is great, but it is not intractable.
What about your experience earning a BA in English at the U is coming in handy?
SC: All of it! The English BA prepared me to think on my feet and to pay close attention to detail--two things that are essential in teaching. It also helped me develop a love for reading that it also critical when teaching reading to children: if you don't enjoy it then they won't either. Besides that, my entire experience at the University of Minnesota prepared to come into this situation and work through it no matter how tough it got. I had to rely heavily on my tolerance of ambiguity, resilience, inter/intra dependence, goal orientation, appreciation of differences--which are all skills I learned in or out of the classroom at the U (thanks Jerry Reinhart for the Learning Development Outcomes).
RM: The most basic thing I learned from the English Department that I use daily here is pretty obvious: THINK. I certainly can claim other important facets, things Stephen mentioned and others like exposure to a broad world of cultural views and rigorous levels of theorizing, analysis, organization, etc. But that basic skill of learning to think beyond just the base level of something, to try and understand not just the problem but the cause of that issue, to dig deeper and find that next level of meaning, whether it be with a text in my classroom or with a student who I need to reach--it's something I never would have honed to such capacity without my education.September 22nd, 2009