Author: Daphne Auza
Only eight percent of kids growing up in low-income communities graduate college by age 24, according to Postsecondary Education. Teach For America has made it their mission to fight this educational achievement gap, now with the help of several Occidental alumni.
Two Occidental grads became a part of the 10,000-member Teach for America corps this year to join a nationwide effort to teach and inspire students in low-income area schools. The selective program, with an acceptance rate of 11 percent in 2011, recruits top graduates from across the nation and has 5,800 new members starting to teach this fall.
Michael Clegg ’12, who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics and was ASOC President his senior year at Occidental, is one of them.
Clegg teaches in Camden, N.J., which is near his hometown of Trenton, N.J. Clegg decided that applying to Teach for America would make a great starting point for his post-collegiate career.
“I chose to apply to TFA because I wanted to do meaningful and worthwhile work after gaining so many skills in college and in reflecting on my own personal journey, it brought me directly to the struggles our education system faces,” Clegg said.
He had always been interested in education and even more so with the legal aspect of it.
“I’m currently working with the Camden Charter Network and they have done great work in the city by providing quality and transformational education opportunities for many of its young scholars,” Clegg said. “As a result, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities a similar network could do for many communities across America.”
According to Education and Urban Society, socioeconomic status is an important factor in predicting the academic success of students in the United States. For years, a noticeable achievement gap has persisted between students coming from low and high income communities. Teach for America, a non-profit organization founded at Princeton University, aims to eliminate this educational inequality by enlisting recent college graduates and professionals to a two-year commitment of teaching in underprivileged schools.
Applying to the selective program does not require certification in teaching. Instead, Teach for America recruits members from a variety of academic backgrounds, searching for graduates who hold a record of achievement and can inspire students who either do not have access to or knowledge of opportunities that will aid their academic success.
Since graduating from Occidental with a degree in economics last May, Christopher Best has been teaching algebra to ninth-graders and geometry to 10th and 11th-graders in Tchula, Miss. Although not completely certain about the career he wished to pursue, he wanted his first post-collegiate job to test the skills and knowledge he had gained at Occidental.
“Whatever I choose to do, I know that Teach for America will prepare me completely,” Best said. “Nothing in the world is harder than this job – nothing that I’ve ever faced, nothing that I could even imagine. Nothing. Every day is a unique challenge, one that requires a creative solution confidently and efficiently executed.”
Before actually working in the classroom, corps members must attend a five-week summer institute. However, not even the intensive training can completely prepare new teachers for the challenge of instructing in underprivileged classrooms.
“I hate to state the painfully obvious, but teaching is extremely difficult,” Clegg said. “The days are long and the nights are longer. In many ways I feel like teaching consumes my entire day.”
Along with the difficulties that come with teaching, the new instructors must also accustom themselves to a new environment.
Best acknowledged the rough transition he felt both on and off of the job, and said, “Culture shock, isolation from family and friends, managing a classroom full of high schoolers, many of whom don’t want to be there, creating your own lesson plans, preparing materials for your classroom, developing unit plans, complying with administrative deadlines, managing paper flow. I work about 80 or 90 hours a week right now. Most of the time I don’t feel like I’m doing enough.”
The very presence of these obstacles, however, results in the parts of their job that these Occidental graduates love the most.
“To see a light from a young student when they finally grasp a concept they have struggled with, or see a young scholar moving towards discovering truths that will fundamentally change their lives, is amazing,” Clegg said. “There are few things in life so rewarding.”
Best echoed a similar sentiment about what he gains from this job.
“When I feel like I managed to reach a child, that I pushed them to do something that they wouldn’t have done without me, I feel amazing,” Best said.
Besides the fulfillment of successfully reaching out to students, the financial benefits of working for Teach for America may also appeal to college graduates. Corps members receive the same salary and health benefits as other teachers in their school district. They also receive an education voucher from Americorps, which can be used for credentialing courses, covering previous students loans or funding further education after the two-year commitment.
With the help of a $50 million federal grant, Teach for America continues to expand rapidly. By 2015, the program expects its recruits to make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation’s neediest school districts. Critics of the program, however, argue that Teach for America’s strategy for closing the achievement gap needs to evolve in contingency with its expansion.
According to Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators, 56 percent of Teach for America instructors left after two years to pursue other careers. This low rate of returning teachers has led to demands from critics for a longer training period and a teaching commitment longer than two years.
Despite this controversy, Teach for America consistently draws in applicants from Occidental, where the institutional philosophy is grounded in a dedication to community engagement. In 2008, Occidental was one of the top small-school contributors to Teach for America, as nine graduates were accepted into the corps.
Senior Nora Feichtmeir is Occidental’s campus coordinator for Teach for America. She believes that the program actually possesses a special appeal for Occidental students.
“Oxy’s mission actually mentions a deeply rooted commitment to the public good,” Feichtmeir said. “Here at Oxy we stress the importance of examining the ways privilege and oppression shape life for people in our city, our country and our world. It is a natural progression to want to move from studying oppression in the classroom to taking action against it in our communities.”
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