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Teach For America leaves lasting impact on Moritz students

April 5, 2011 | Students

There are currently 16 Moritz students who are alumni of Teach For America (TFA). Ask for a volunteer to talk about their experience and 16 hands shoot up.  Ask for a volunteer to opine about education in America, 16 hands shoot up. Ask whether TFA was a life-changing experience, you guessed it, 16 hands in the air.

It is the most significant experience I have had in my life by a long shot, and it probably always will be,” said Adam Schira ’11, who taught 9th grade English at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia as part of TFA. “I will always be involved and be passionate about underserved children as a result. After three years, I needed to step back, but whether it is on a philanthropic level, volunteer level, or whether I go back to teaching full-time at some point, I will always focus on those who need it most.”

Like most TFA members, Schira’s experience growing up in Toledo was vastly different than most of his students.  He attended private high school and then went on to Xavier University in Cincinnati.

“I saw the TFA recruiting materials and I was sure it was not for me. But, I was clerking in a law office and an attorney encouraged it,” Schira said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after undergrad – maybe law, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to law school right away. I wanted to do something significant in the world – for myself and for people who really needed it.”

TFA, an independent nonprofit organization, was created in 1991 to target college students just like Schira – overachieving, highly motivated, and ready to make a difference in the world. The program is designed to be extremely competitive and prestigious – and it is with only 12 percent of its 46,000 applicants accepted.

Once accepted, students are assigned positions based on a ranking of choices. Training occurs over the summer institute, or “teacher boot camp.”

“Training was pretty overwhelming. There were structured events from six in the morning until nine at night and then I needed to work on my lesson planning,” Schira said. “It was hard. If you did not come in with a sense of humility, you certainly left with one.”

As part of the institute, TFA members often teach summer school. They are often observed and coached by district teachers, team-teach with other TFA members, and constantly review how the day and lesson plans worked.

“My first experience teaching was summer school – 33 students who did not want to be there in a non-air-conditioned building in Philly,” Schira said.

TFA has received criticism from mainstream teachers on its intense, but brief, training program.

“A friend of mine was a ‘traditional’ teacher in the Bronx,” said Nikki Baszynski ’13, who taught 6th grade English. “He told me he thought the training TFA corps members received made them better prepared to teach than him.  Our training was tailored toward our mission to significantly raise student achievement in a low-income community with a class that is, on average, multiple grade levels behind. The ongoing support and professional development TFA provides is also instrumental to our success. We are assigned program directors (PD) who visit our classes frequently, and we are offered multiple opportunities to expand content knowledge. If you are having trouble, your PD will visit your class, assess the situation, and provide advice on how to resolve the problem. My friend had nothing like this to help him through his first year.”

In order to teach in TFA, most states require students to obtain certification for the grade levels they will be teaching. Other states or districts require TFA members to be working toward a master’s degree while teaching as part of TFA.

After the five-week summer institute is complete, TFA members head to the classroom.

“For a first assignment, and partly so I could gauge where they were academically, I had my students write a basic personal statement to get into college,” Schira said. “One of my students wrote about being poor and how his mother died at the hands of his father, who was now in jail. It was a reality check for me. It is hard to discuss grammar when someone is telling you such a powerful story, but we ended up connecting.  By the end of the year, this student was one of my best students and I got him tested into the gifted program despite his emotional issues.

“It started out very rough. But once you show the kids that you care and that you are genuine, the kids come around,” Schira said.

Other TFA members also found the first days in the classroom overwhelming.

“My first year, I worked at a huge, overcrowded, traditional public school. It was chaotic with little structure, which made classroom management very difficult,” said Megan Wintermantel ’12 who taught 7th grade English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “There was not a lot of support from administration when it came to discipline problems or getting children the assistance they needed. I just really had to focus on creating the right culture in my classroom. TFA instills in you that these are your students and you will do whatever you need to in order to ensure they make significant academic gains and are on the right path.”

The first year of teaching can be difficult for anyone as new teachers test and modify lesson plans and classroom management strategies. A low performing school with little administrative help and children with social and emotional needs makes the challenge even more difficult.

“The first year was incredibly hard. I have never done anything so difficult, even compared to law school,” said Alexandra Wolfe ’11, who taught 8th grade math and algebra in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Classroom challenges often called for creativity.

“My classroom only had one set of books, and that wasn’t even a complete set,” Schira said. “It made homework and assignments challenging, but I just had to be creative and focus on shorter works like poetry, or copy pages to send home.”

The rural area surrounding Wolfe’s district in Texas, located about four miles from the Mexican border, brought its own set of problems.

“I had students with no electricity who were living in a trailer with 12 relatives, but I did not have lower standards for them,” she said. “In a rural area, it seemed like few students knew much about life outside of the valley, and certainly couldn’t imagine themselves leaving. When I flew home to Ohio to visit my parents, they were just fascinated. After that, I was visiting law schools and made it a point to take lots of pictures, get out the maps, and show the students ‘this is where I was this weekend. I might go to school here’ just to expose them to the outside world.”

Other TFA members also found that using personal stories and connecting with students during extracurricular activities were key.

“I volunteered to coach a start-up girl’s soccer team. On the first day, 50 girls showed up, which is more than showed up to the first day of football practice, and they were so excited and determined,” Schira said. “But, then I looked around and realized they are wearing jeans and flip-flops and had never touched a soccer ball in their lives. But, three years later, they were city league champions. These girls were driven and ready to play and many of them ended up in my honors English class.”

After starting Moritz, Baszynski noticed that many of her same fellow students kept showing up to the same events and causes.  After talking with them and connecting the dots, she realized there were a lot of TFA alums at Moritz, all of whom brought the TFA mindset and passion with them.  In the fall of 2010, Baszynski and her fellow TFA alumni started the Education Law Society as a way to channel that energy for current and future Moritz students. So far the group has hosted events covering vast education law topics ranging from student privacy to special education advocacy. The group also has set up a volunteer program that works at the Columbus Collegiate Academy charter school in Columbus.

While the Moritz TFA alumni are busy planning a variety of careers, most intend on having some hand in education law and policy in the future.

Wintermantel is working at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles this summer. She hopes to work in education law upon graduation. “There are so few lawyers who represent students,” she said. “Many lawyers work in special education or represent teachers unions or school districts, but not many actually represent the traditional student.”

Schira is currently clerking in the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office and he, like other TFA alums, previously taught for the Law and Leadership Institute.

Wolfe has accepted a position at Dykema in the Detroit area for the fall of 2011. She is currently conducting phone interviews on behalf of TFA, and hopes to have some involvement with the newly created Detroit Public Schools TFA program.

“There is no silver bullet, no one answer to fixing the education system, but teachers can make a difference,” Wolfe said.  “It is great if there are great parents and the kids have food to eat, but the biggest difference is often the teachers. We need quality teachers with the skills and ability to teach, who care about the students and are willing to push them.”