Six 2008 alums share their knowledge through Teach for America
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—Working as a corps member in the Teach for America program is no job for the weary. Or for the apathetic, the easily intimidated, or the undetermined.
Within hours of entering their classrooms as first-year teachers, six 2008 Centre College alums became well aware of these realities.
Now, as they embark on their second years with Teach for America, Jake Hill, Cassie Restrepo, Sarah Weidinger, Stephanie Lawler, Amanda East and Kevin Havelda feel prepared for the challenges that await them.
They will face these challenges in very different regions of the country. Hill is working in the Rio Grande Valley, where he teaches high school history. In Las Vegas, Restrepo is teaching fifth grade general education, and East works in eastern North Carolina, where she teaches high school social studies. Lawler teaches seventh and eighth grade math in Phoenix, Havelda teaches in the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and Weidinger is a third grade general education teacher in Chicago.
These Centre alums are but six of the 7,300 recent college graduates from across the country currently participating in Teach for America, an organization composed of corps members who spend two years teaching in one of 34 low-income communities around the nation.
Their mission is to eliminate the achievement gap between low-income students and those from higher-income families, and, as the corps members quickly learn, this is the most difficult of tasks.
"You go most of your college career feeling on top of the world," Restrepo says. "Learning to deal with the day-to-day up-and-down challenges in ways you would never conceive of prior to being in a classroom. But ultimately you realize that failures are part of the deal. You fail so that the next day you get up and say, 'Well, that didn't work,' and you try something else."
Failures, along with many other daily struggles, take a serious toll on the teachers, and, as they quickly realized, the work doesn't stop after the dismissal bell rings.
"The life of a teacher, especially in the first year, is more difficult and tiring than I had ever thought possible," East says. "Teach for America truly requires commitment not only to your job but to the students and community that you serve."
Hill agrees. "Teaching is a full-time job. Not in the 40-hours-a-week sense, but full-time in that your work is never done. There's always something to be planned, tracked, or graded, and you're always working on new ways to improve your classroom. It's a lot of work, but it's nothing you can't handle after four years at Centre."
Like Hill, the other teachers agree that their experiences at Centre helped prepare them for the continual challenges they face.
"Since Centre is such a small school, students end up taking on a lot of responsibility in their studies and in their extracurriculars," Weidinger says. "I ended up with leadership roles on the dance team and in some research, and I think those experiences have helped me the most. You really have to be a strong leader to be a great teacher."
Restrepo credits the classes offered at Centre with helping her in her new position. "I was introduced to the concept of the achievement gap in my Poverty and Homelessness class," she says. "The night in the homeless shelter remains in my mind now, especially because I have several students who are or once were homeless. I remember seeing a young child while staying at the Salvation Army that night and thinking, 'How can that child have a childhood?' Now that child has more than one face and now a name. My students' names. Centre opened my eyes to those realities."
Taking advantage of Centre's internship-plus opportunity, Lawler spent one summer during her college career participating in Breakthrough Collaborative, a program that encourages middle school students to attend college and college students to enter the field of education. Here, Lawler says, "I really fell in love with teaching and seeing students find success. I also learned that all students, despite their backgrounds, have the potential to achieve."
Havelda, who works in what he calls "the Ellis Island of the worst, most violent students in the city, the state, and by several accounts, the nation," believes that Centre equipped him with "the intellectual and social consciousness necessary to affect change—to make sure all the students in our country will be given the chance they so richly deserve that is not predetermined by their socioeconomic status and where they happen to be born. Centre helped open my eyes to the inequities that plague our country and allowed for me to realize that there are careers that do the work that is necessary to rectify the ills of this country."
Though they admit that their work is exceptionally difficult, the Centre alums share the belief that their mission is extremely important.
"I've always thought of education as the most important resource one person can give to another," Hill says. "Not only does it inform students about the world in which we live, but it also equips them with the skills and knowledge they need to change those things they don't like in the world around them."
Weidinger shares this belief. "I knew that I wanted to do something important when I graduated," she says. "I'd learned the staggering statistics about the achievement gap when I was doing research and working with at-risk youth the summer after my junior year. I realized that helping to close the achievement gap was a cause that was very important to me, and Teach For America seemed like a way that I could be most directly involved."
During her internship at Breakthrough, Lawler says, "I worked in a great community of teachers who were energetic and excited about seeing students learn. I felt that Teach for America would bring me together with that same community. After my years at Centre, I really learned how much I value a strong community and support system."
With the aid of the supportive Teach for America community, the Centre alums made significant strides in their battle against the achievement gap during the past year.
In North Carolina, where East teaches, all high school students are required to score a level three or four on a state-issued U.S. History test in order to graduate. "Although it was my first year teaching," East says, "about half of my students met this state requirement. Their success allowed the school to earn AYP for the first time in seven years, which lets people know that we're headed in the right direction."
(AYP measures individual student performance in specific courses and to determine if schools are working to close the achievement gap and, if so, by how much.)
Weidinger's favorite success story centers on a student whose improvement was extraordinary.
"Antonio started out about a year behind in reading and math, struggled with English, and told me on the first day of school in broken English that he wants to be an immigration lawyer when he grows up," Weidinger says. "By the end of the year, he was reading on a 4.3 grade level, communicating fluently, and was excited about fourth grade."
Seeing an improvement in her students' math skills was Lawler's greatest reward. "Many of my students qualified for algebra this year," she says, "and that puts those students on track for success in high school and eventually college."
Though seeing improvements in test scores is crucial, the teachers agree that many other aspects of the program are equally rewarding.
The most special moments, Hill believes, are "when kids tell me that I've helped them learn or that they know I believe in them and that it's motivated them to work harder."
After one of her students advanced two reading levels and "gained the confidence to believe that he can both behave and achieve," Restrepo was rewarded with the insight that comes to all great teachers.
"It's called relentless pursuit," she says. "Sometimes it can be ugly, but that's why I joined Teach for America. If I wanted it to be easy, I would have stayed home."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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