Reach the Children
Teach for America sends bright college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools. Not everyone likes the idea, but when you’re putting out a fire, you don’t ask where the water’s coming from.
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“…the single most important factor in determining a child’s achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.” —Barack Obama
Seth Saavedra, fresh out of college and eager to teach, entered Cesar Batalla Elementary School a year-and-a-half ago and ran into the educational equivalent of a brick wall. He had just graduated from the University of New Mexico with majors in English, economics and philosophy. He had no teaching credentials. Yet under the auspices of Teach For America (TFA), he was determined to find a classroom that needed him.
TFA sends volunteers such as Saavedra to teach in some of the nation’s worst-performing school districts. Their mission is to address educational inequities that have contributed to a yawning achievement gap between minority students in low-income communities and their more affluent suburban peers. To many, this disparity is the civil-rights issue of our time. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, Connecticut’s achievement gap is larger than that of any other state in the nation.
Saavedra’s experience is typical of what many TFA corps members face. He was assigned as the language arts teacher to an entire seventh grade—five classes with 30 students each. He quickly discovered that many of them were struggling to read at a fourth-grade level. But that wasn’t the only problem.
His classes turned out to be a blackboard jungle. As he tried to teach, students defaced desks and chairs, popped in and out of seats, chattered to each other while ignoring the teacher. Many seemed unable to grasp the concept of homework. It wasn’t until he discussed the problem with a guidance counselor that he learned that some of them were living in homeless shelters. Gradually, he began to see the bigger picture.
“It exceeded all the difficulties I thought I might face,” says Saavedra about his first year of teaching. “Nothing prepared me for them.”
Cesar Batalla is a sprawling pre-K-to-grade-8 school in Bridgeport’s West End. Two-thirds of the children here are Hispanic, the rest African-American. Nearly all are poor and come from a community where failure extends beyond the classroom. It is demonstrated to them every day through broken families, gang violence and drugs. Helping them overcome their environment and set their sights on a goal for a better future was only one of the hurdles Saavedra faced. Getting them simply to pay attention was another.
“It was frustrating,” he says. “After work I’d spend the night developing lesson plans.” But in the morning, nothing had changed. Students were as uncooperative as ever.
He shouted, threatened and scolded, trying to get them to listen, sit still or stop rolling their eyes and pay attention. At times, he’d sit at his desk in total exasperation. “I’ll teach when you’re ready,” he would tell them. It had little effect.
Fortunately, TFA provides assistance. Corps members participate in everything from “learning teams” that meet regularly for content-specific training to professional development workshops and support groups where new teachers share resources and develop ways to improve performance.