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July 15, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 16

Features

Teaching for America

Young alumni provide a lifeline for poor schools — and get a lesson in humility

By Christopher Connell ’71
Published in the July 15, 2009, issue


Meaghan Petersack ’08 with her kindergarten students in Washington, D.C.
Christopher Connell ’71
Meaghan Petersack ’08 with her kindergarten students in Washington, D.C.

 

NEW ORLEANS — Well before the first bell rings at Walter L. Cohen High School, Emily Farley ’08 bustles around her classroom — the one with the black-and-orange PRINCETON 2008 banner on the back wall — writing the day’s “agenda” for her freshman math and English classes on the board, readying question sheets to be displayed overhead, and putting the final touches on lesson plans. First period is her toughest challenge, a 90-minute remedial math class for 16 “eight-and-a-halfs” — teens as old as 17 who have twice flunked Louisiana’s eighth-grade exit exam and must try again in three short weeks.

Farley is one of the novice teachers serving on the front lines of Teach for America’s efforts to repair broken public schools in the nation’s poorest urban and rural communities. New Orleans was among the first places where TFA dispatched new college grads in 1990, a year after Wendy Kopp ’89 conceived the idea of a national teacher corps drawn from the best and brightest. Farley and Princeton classmates Kit Tollerson ’08 and Jeylan Erman ’08 were among 250 new TFA recruits who landed in steamy New Orleans last August.  

Kopp’s organization today has a $120 million budget and places more than 6,000 first- and second-year teachers in classrooms across the country. A record 34,000 new graduates — including 173 Princetonians, 15 percent of the senior class — applied for TFA jobs in 2009; four out of five are turned away. “We’ve learned over time that it’s a very rare person who straight out of college is ready for this — ready to teach in the most challenging teaching situations in the country and not just survive, but truly excel with their students — [teachers] who will learn the right lessons and leave more committed and not more disillusioned,” Kopp explains in an interview. “That’s really what has raised the bar to get into Teach for America.” Those who make the cut are given five weeks of training, then placed in jobs that can be both exasperating and inspiring.  

Twenty-two members of the Class of 2008 made that cut and joined the TFA corps. Among them was Nate Morrison, who ignored a friend’s advice that “it would be a waste of a Princeton education to be a teacher” and went to Shiprock High School on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico to teach algebra. Meaghan Petersack ’08, who had helped coordinate TFA’s aggressive recruitment drive at Princeton, wound up at a charter school in the projects of Washington, D.C., teaching kindergartners. Their classmate David Korn was sent to Jacksonville, Florida, where he teaches seventh grade and coaches football; he was proud of some children’s “fabulous results,” but also dismayed that two students at the school were shot during the year. Sarah Zaslow ’08, who teaches ninth-grade English at largely Hispanic Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, calls her year in the classroom “the most humbling experience I’ve ever had.”

Farley was a prize catch for TFA’s recruiters: a native of New Orleans and a product of public magnet schools, including Benjamin Franklin High School, the best in the state. An architecture major, she played club soccer and was an Outdoor Action leader who wanted to give back to her hometown before heading to graduate school. “It probably wouldn’t have happened that way if it weren’t for Katrina,” says Farley.  

Was she ready to teach when she got to Cohen? “I don’t know that I was very well prepared to be in a high school classroom, but I also don’t know what else they could have done to prepare me. It’s learn as you go,” says Farley, who was teaching freshmen in a school-within-a-school at Cohen called the Academy of Health Sciences. After one week she agreed to teach English as well as math, even though it meant twice as many lesson plans. Her boss, Alex Hochran, principal of the freshman academy and a TFA alumnus himself, said, “She has that spark. The first time I saw her in a classroom, I knew she could be an excellent, lifelong teacher.”

Farley’s lessons are quick-paced, and even the miscreants in her classes treat her with respect, as she does them. “It really doesn’t work to be negative, no matter how negative they are,” she says. She gets occasional mentoring from a TFA supervisor, and, like Tollerson and Erman, is taking a graduate class one night a week to earn a master’s degree and full teaching credentials at the end of 12 months.

Farley says her students’ spotty attendance is her greatest challenge. “The ones at school every day are doing well, but I am struggling, fighting this attendance problem,” which is compounded by suspensions, she explains. “If they are out of my classroom, they are not learning. They don’t study, they don’t do anything on their own.”

Farley had a premonition that this Monday morning could be even worse than usual. With the switch to daylight-saving time, “I’m a little concerned that the bells are not going to ring,” she says. She’s right; the bells and clocks won’t be in sync at Cohen until Wednesday. After security guards let students through the metal detectors and the students bolt down breakfast in the cafeteria, the vice principal’s voice over the public-address system instructs teachers to “stand in the hallway and receive your class.” Farley captured the daily scene in a journal she kept for PAW last October on “Rm. 245: A Day in the Life.”


Emily Farley ’08, third from left, teaches eighth-graders in New Orleans.
Christopher Connell ’71
Emily Farley ’08, third from left, teaches eighth-graders in New Orleans.

School starts at 8 a.m. When the bell rings at 7:55, however, there isn’t a student to be seen in our hallway ... I wait by the door. The flood of students starts slowly, with crowds of black- and green-poloed high schoolers wandering the stark hallways in groups. Their mission? To avoid entering a classroom until the very last minute. ...  

By 8:15, there are a handful of rowdy boys in my classroom, talking about the latest school drama and paying careful attention to the activity in the hallway. I remind them that their job is to come in, sit down, and start the “Power Up,” our daily warm-up exercises for which they receive a grade. “But the hallway be poppin’, Ms. Farley! I’m about to, OK? All right, all right!” . . .  

Students who misbehave in my class are subject to the “three strikes” rule. Three warnings and I send them out of class, either to the discipline office or to “chill” in the hallway. Sending students out of class is my biggest weapon. Class is a social opportunity, and most students resent the embarrassment and the isolation of leaving the classroom. The only thing they dislike more is my calling their parents.


Ten of Farley’s 16 “eight-and-a-halfs” fail to show up this Monday morning. Farley marks them absent and pushes the rest through preparations for the state exam, the Louisiana Education Assessment Program, or LEAP. “We’re going all the way through equations in one week. We’re going to fly through them. We’re doing our LEAP today and every day until the test,” says Farley, a lanyard with keys and a USB drive around her neck. She drills her students on one-step equations (5x = 40 and 6x = 6), then distributes graphing calculators and presses on to two-step equations (2x + 10 = 18 and -6y + 6 = -120 ). “This stuff is easy. We did this last semester,” she encourages them.

But nothing really is easy for these students. In a city with dozens of failed schools, Cohen ranks near the bottom. Paul G. Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District — which includes 66 New Orleans schools with 25,000 students, or two-thirds of the city’s diminished enrollment — explains, “The children in New Orleans are the most challenged children in the country. The majority have been out of school for one or two years or more, they are at least two years older than grade level, and 85 percent are two, three, four, or more years behind grade level.”

A girl with the face of a cherub who was first to arrive in Room 245 turns out to be on the run from the school disciplinarian. Her offense is niggling: wearing ballet flats with her uniform instead of tennis shoes. But soon she is making calls on her cell phone (also forbidden) and telling rapt classmates about the funeral of her cousin, victim of a shooting in this city rife with gangs and homicides. “It ain’t over,” she concludes ominously. Another girl blithely announces, “Miss Farley, guess what? Saturday I went to the hairdresser,” then spends part of class meticulously painting her nails from two bottles opened inside her desk. A boy naps. A 16-year-old girl who just moved back from Texas stays mum. Farley asked her last week what she had been working on in Texas, and says the girl “pulled me outside and said, ‘Just so you know, I can’t read at all, and in math I was doing easy stuff like pluses and minuses.’ She told the literacy specialist she had eaten a lot of lead paint when she was young.”

A dreadlocked boy stands vigil each morning with Miss Farley outside Room 245. “He’s my friend, but he’s got behavior problems,” she says later. That becomes evident in second period, where he toys with a stapler that he uncouples, grips like a pistol, and makes a clicking sound as he pretends to shoot classmates. Farley eventually disarms him. Later, during English, when he gets an ultimatum to stop using a cell phone, the youth unplugs its charger and walks out of class without a word. His timing is poor. Lurking outside, he spots Farley distributing fistfuls of M&Ms for students to use as Bingo markers for a vocabulary game. A knock is heard. Farley ignores it.  

Farley’s parents and sisters painted a colorful mural of a phoenix in the school hallway on a service day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Her father, Thomas Farley, a professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health, came in one morning to explain epidemiology to her students. He presented them with a scenario that required the use of fractions and percentages to deduce which food made people sick at a church picnic. Thomas Farley had done this successfully before with fifth-graders. “With the Cohen kids, it was rough. It was more chaotic than I was used to,” he admits. “I don’t want to be critical because these kids come from very troubled backgrounds, but I was struck by how difficult it was to work with them.” Emily says of her father’s stint in Room 245, “The minute he started talking, I was like, ‘Oh, no. His delivery isn’t strong enough.’ You’ve got to entertain; you can’t just talk or read words. You’re an actor up there.”  


Jeylan Erman ’08, left, with a student at Carver High School in New Orleans.
Christopher Connell ’71
Jeylan Erman ’08, left, with a student at Carver High School in New Orleans.

Across the city at George W. Carver High School, only four of 16 students show up for Jeylan Erman’s third-period math class. The missing include students the teacher calls “the troublemakers.” At a coffee shop the day before, Erman — the daughter of an engineer who had grown up poor on a farm in Turkey — shared her frustrations. “I could never have imagined in my life that I’d be dealing with what I’m dealing with right now in my classroom. ... Kids are jumping out of their seats, they are all over the place.” She laughed when she recalled a teaching tip she had gotten during training: Slap Post-its on students’ desks, with different colors signifying the severity of the infraction. “The kids’ reaction was, ‘What? What am I going to do with this?’ They’d take the Post-it, crunch it up and throw it away,” said Erman. “It was a bad idea. Post-its don’t work in New Orleans.”  

Erman longs for more advice and closer mentoring: “I don’t know how to teach slopes, for instance. Who do I turn to? There’s not always somebody there for me who can help me figure out the best way for teaching things.” For a while she kept a journal that chronicled tests of will with unruly students. One student organized a petition to get her fired after she punished an entire class when someone shut her laptop and lesson plan. The four students in her class this morning are quiet and attentive, and one gets a Princeton pencil as Erman’s “Scholar of the Week.” Talking about negative numbers, she offers as a real-life example the fact that New Orleans sits below sea level. The students know all about that.  

Carver is in the middle of a run-down Ninth Ward neighborhood that was under 12 feet of water after Katrina. The old school was ruined, and Carver reopened in 2007 in a web of large prefabricated buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence. Nine of the 24 Carver teachers are from TFA. “They have been some of the best teachers that we’ve had,” says Carver principal Vanessa Eugene. One is the athletic director, who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in hopes of building a football stadium for Carver, the alma mater of former NFL running back Marshall Faulk.

Erman found more success and satisfaction in the second semester, taking 15 freshmen to the Colton arts center, a converted middle school a few blocks from the Mississippi River where artists taught African drumming, ceramics, dance, and other crafts. Her students built a papier-mâché Barack Obama for a Mardi Gras parade float, and made prints and a comic book. “The art program was extremely successful. Because of the artists’ passion and talent, we were able to see incredible differences in the students,” Erman says. “At the beginning of the semester, I literally had to drag students onto the school bus to Colton. By the end of the course, they were on there before they could even see me coming.”

TFA teachers placed in elementary schools may not face the discipline and attendance problems confronted by their peers in high schools, but their students come from the same stricken families and neighborhoods. Kit Tollerson — who, with Petersack, had coordinated recruiting at Princeton — teaches social studies in grades four through seven at the Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans. Ashe is a new charter school run by a New Orleans organization called FirstLine Schools, with 140 pupils in kindergarten, first grade, and grades four through seven. The vice principal is a TFA alumna, and four of nine teachers are from TFA. Tollerson floats between other teachers’ classrooms. He has 24 fourth-graders working quietly on a map exercise on Tuesday morning. Fourth grade, too, has a high-stakes state exam approaching. “This is the stuff you just need to know for the LEAP. It will make answering all the geography questions much, much easier,” Tollerson tells the pupils before letting them out of their seats to quiz each other in pairs. “I’ve heard some excellent coaching. If someone doesn’t know, you are the teacher. You have to get them to the answer.”

Tollerson grew up in New York City, the son of two journalists. His students know that Tollerson’s father is African-American and his mother white, and that he went to high school in Brooklyn, but not that he went to an elite prep school, St. Ann’s, or to Princeton. “I’ve been very intentionally selective about the information I’ve given my students about me. The more differences you draw, the harder it is to build relationships with them.” At Princeton, he was a Big Brother. He worked at a hedge fund one summer, but found number-crunching unfulfilling. “TFA has been on my radar for years,” the Woodrow Wilson School major says. “My mom passed me an article about it when I was in late middle school.”

Tollerson labored past midnight many nights preparing lesson plans for the 100-plus students he faced daily. “I definitely don’t regret my decision to come down here,” he says. “It’s a day-to-day struggle — I’m not going to sugarcoat it — but I think I’m getting a lot out of the experience and my students are making gains.” Tollerson wrote in a journal last fall, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, can adequately prepare you or anybody else for their first year of teaching. ... (That) is intrinsic to teaching, not unique to TFA.” Tollerson could see himself teaching for five years “if I find teaching rewarding and think that I’m good at it.” But “if at the end of two years I’m beating my head against the wall and don’t think I’m being effective, then I’ll do something else.”

In Washington, Meaghan Petersack had not expected to teach children as young as kindergartners, but she warmed to the challenge. Petersack wrote her Woodrow Wilson School thesis on the education of poor children. She attended a Catholic high school a few miles from the Princeton campus; her mother is a public-school nurse and her sister a special-education teacher. At Princeton, she became involved in community service and student government; she ran Red Cross blood drives and tutored immigrants in English. In a December journal entry for PAW, she wrote, “There have been many rough days when I have doubted my abilities as a teacher and felt frustrated by obstacles to success. But I always manage to rally from these moments because I know that I can do better, that my students deserve better, and that I have an incredible opportunity to significantly change the trajectory of their education and their lives.”

One day in early May, Petersack is making the rounds in her kindergarten class at the Arts & Technology Academy with 16 students at various class “stations” who are forming letters from Play-Doh, stringing letters and short words together on an easel, and playing educational games on two computers. “It’s very exciting,” she says. “A lot of my students have started to read.” Petersack is one of five TFA teachers in this pre-kindergarten-to-sixth-grade school with 600 students in northeast Washington, a hotbed of charter schools. The principal is a TFA alumnus, as is the city’s chancellor. The head of the lower school pokes her head in the classroom. Petersack says afterward with a smile, “Sometimes I don’t know if they’re checking up on me or just seeing if I’m OK.”  

Soon Petersack, in black slacks and an orange turtleneck, gathers all the children on the class rug for an exuberant reading of a variant on “The Little Red Hen” folktale. They chime the lines themselves in unison, shoot up hands to answer Petersack’s questions, and offer their own commentary. “I learned from graduate school” — she, too, is earning a master’s degree in the evening — “and a TFA workshop that the kids need to talk during the story. It takes time, but it’s worth it,” she says.

Petersack, who has a full-time classroom aide, says her learning curve has been “very steep.” Elected a young alumni trustee at Princeton after graduation, she sees her immediate future in teaching but notes, “I’m also interested in school administration as well as education policy.”


Kit Tollerson ’08’s students, in New Orleans, showed progress on state exams.
Christopher Connell ’71
Kit Tollerson ’08’s students, in New Orleans, showed progress on state exams.

In New Orleans, the LEAP results came back in mid-May. The scores for Carver and Cohen were not good. All but one of Farley’s eight-and-a-halfs failed again; the pass rate for all Cohen’s repeat eighth-graders was 17 percent for English and 4 percent for math. She calls the scores “pretty depressing,” but on a par with similar New Orleans high schools.

“How do I think the year went? Overall, the year was positive, but it was a real roller coaster and a tough test of endurance,” Farley says. She hopes “a year of know-how under my belt” will yield better results next year.  

“I learned how far my patience can be tested,” she says. “I also found that no matter how long I was in the classroom, I always felt like I was a student myself, playing the part of a teacher. In the case of teaching, though, acting works really well … I found that the students would listen to me and would take what I said as truth. Scary and empowering at the same time.”

The Carver students whom Erman taught made gains and outpaced the district average, although schoolwide only 5 percent of Carver’s repeat eighth-graders and 22 percent of its tenth-graders passed the LEAP. “That I’ve been able to accomplish this much in my first year of teaching is extremely satisfying,” Erman says. She has learned that teaching requires hard work and planning, and credits friends and family with helping her through the rough patches. “If I didn’t step back frequently and think about the bigger picture — why it is that I even took this job — I would never have made it through the year,” she says.

The LEAP results brought joyful news to Tollerson and his colleagues at Ashe. Sixty-four percent of the fourth-graders passed, a marked improvement. In the social-studies part of the exam, only one of Tollerson’s 26 fourth-graders got a failing grade. “Obviously, I wish I could have done more. And the list of first-year mistakes I made is too long to count,” he says. But he expresses pride in what the students accomplished “and the work I did to get them” there.

Tollerson says he also learned “that there are limits to how hard and long I can push myself,” and that “working strategically is more effective than just working relentlessly.” On weeknights by year’s end he was catching five hours of sleep instead of three or four and taking Saturdays off.

In August, it starts all over again.


Christopher Connell ’71 is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., and former assistant chief of the Washington bureau of The Associated Press.

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