Since 1996, 21 Austin College alumni have joined Teach For America. Six Austin College alumni currently are in the corps and others have taught in Bay Area, Greater New Orleans, Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, the Mid-Atlantic (Philadelphia and Camden), the Mississippi Delta, New York City, the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, South Louisiana, and St. Louis.
Continued from the Winter 2011 Austin College Magazine.
It’s 2003 in an elementary school in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a student will not be returning to school tomorrow.
He had thrown a red, Kool-aid soaked pickle at his teacher’s head during class.
His teacher was Dustin Morrow ’00, an American Studies major who had only 5 weeks of teaching preparation.
Dustin was a member of Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the quality of America’s public schools by putting bright college graduates in underserved classrooms.
Dustin sent the student to the principal’s office, and the next day, the student didn’t return. When he talked to the principal, he found out why: The eighth-grade student no longer wanted to go to school — and he was 18, so the school could no longer require him to attend.
“Despite all the interventions, parent conferences, everything … We had failed to save that kid. That was a big moment for me,” Dustin said. That’s when he understood the mission of Teach For America. “We are reaching out to those that are unlovely and often unwanted, and we are saying that we will do whatever it takes to save the life of that kid. Often these kids are getting cheated by not by the good people that give their lives to public education in high poverty and at-risk schools. Often these kids are ‘left behind’ they day they are born.”
Holly George ‘05, an art major, knew she wanted to earn a master’s degree in fine arts, but didn’t want to go directly into graduate school. She saw Teach for America as a short-term service opportunity.
Placement: P.S. IF 298, a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade school in Brooklyn, New York. In 2005, that area had the highest homicide rate in New York state. Most of the students attending the brick building in the middle of several housing projects were immigrants from the Caribbean. Holly taught first and second grade students.
Difficult moment: “There was this one student who, while I was gone [on a break], decided to stab another girl just below her eye with a pencil. I took him and the girl down to the principle’s office… the principle ignored me for awhile and then said, ‘deal with it.’
I realized if there was any discipline in my classroom it had to be through me, because sending a student to see the principle was not a threat I could use.”
Currently: Finished her graduate degree from James Madison University in Virginia. She is moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and plans to either find a faculty teaching position in a college or work in an art museum developing education programs.
“I really was doing it for a two-year experience and it really changed my life. Somehow, someway, I will always be working with children.”
Of note: “Every problem I see in the world I can draw back to education. If we could have equality of education, I think it would fix so much inequality.”
“I could tell that all of my parents wanted their child to have a good education, although they didn’t know how to get that for them.”
Jesse Travis ’08 was a double major in psychology and religion.
“I’d applied for other things and hadn’t gotten them, so I decided to just apply for everything. I saw a poster for Teach For America, and it was due the next day, so I went home and turned it in,” Jesse said. “The more I learned about it, the more it excited me. It fell into place.”
Placement: Helen Cox High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Jesse was certified in special education for ninth through twelfth graders. In her first year, Jesse worked with freshmen and sophomore special needs students in multiple classes. Four days before the start of her second year, she was assigned to teach geometry for 10th graders. She wasn’t assigned a classroom for the first month of school.
Difficult moment: “My second year was a more powerful year for me. My second year, I worked all the time,” she said. “I oftentimes would get up at 4 or 5 a.m. I would wake up, do some kind of preparation in the morning, then commute to school. My school got out at 2:40, but at least the first semester, I didn’t leave until 8 or 9 p.m. All the long-term planning had to be done while I was teaching, too.”
Currently: Jesse is now Program Coordinator for Reasoning Minds, a math nonprofit that provides web-based educational math programs to 2nd through 6th graders. She is focused on the Dallas and Abilene, Texas, school districts.
“As a geometry teacher, I got really frustrated with the fact that would take me 45 minutes to explain to a group would take 2 minutes to explain one-on-one,” Jesse said. “When I found out about this program, it’s something I would have used, because it’s an artificial intelligence program that has a great curriculum that is able to respond to students’ answers and target what they are struggling with. That enables the teacher to engage in small group instruction.”
Of note: “Most of the criticisms of TFA are more applicable to the situation of itself than to Teach For America,” Jesse said. “The system needs to change before it’s going to be a work environment that is attractive to teachers. But I do think their program is very responsive to feedback. They are constantly improving. I cannot think of a program that does a better job of trying to address that situation.”
After Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp spoke on campus as the first recipient of the Austin College Posey Leadership Award, Christine Denison ’06 knew she wanted to be a part of the program. The Spanish and political science double major had tutored students in Dallas and Sherman, and the goal of filling the achievement gap resonated.
Placement: Bilingual fifth grade science teacher at an elementary school in Mercedes, Texas.
“My first impression of my school was that it was gleaming and beautiful and I wondered if I was even needed at such a seemingly polished school,” she said. “It turned out that the school had been renovated recently, but was contaminated with black mold, and my second year teaching the school was forced to relocate to the town’s old fort.”
Difficult moment: “I knew that the students were starting out behind academically, but I never expected how much they would really need me,” Christine said. “Along with a teacher, every day I felt like a counselor, a nurse, a parent, and a friend. Many of the students had unstable home lives so I quickly learned that I had to be much more than a teacher to them.”
Currently: Fifth grade science teacher at Peak Preparatory School, a college charter school outside of downtown Dallas, after a two-year experience in Uruguay as a Fulbright scholar. While in Uruguay, Christine assisted English teachers in public elementary schools and helped teach adults to be English teachers.
Of note: “It was difficult, but by far the most rewarding thing that I have ever done,” Christine said. “I can’t imagine having so much responsibility all at once as a 22-year-old starting out in any other profession.”
“Most 5th graders are supposed to be 10 and 11 years old. However, some of my fifth graders had repeated several grades and were 12 or 13. Many of them had never passed a standardized test before, and science was the first subject that they felt like there were able to be really successful in.”
“My mom was a teacher for over 30 years, and there are a lot of teachers in my family, so it was something I was familiar with, but it wasn’t something that stood out to me in college,” said Nicole Mittenfelner Carl ’06, a Spanish and sociology double major. She considered working for a nonprofit, but applied for TFA after hearing about a friends’ experience.
Placement: Morton McMichael School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a pre-K through 8th grade school. She taught 7th and 8th grade reading her first year, and 6th – 8th grade reading her second year. “I didn’t have a curriculum, so I had to create that,” she said. “My kids would get to me by 7th grade, having never read a novel — but by the time they leave they’ve read 7 or 8!”
Difficult moment: Her first year, the school had 7 first-year teachers on a staff of 15. “There was a high turnover and there wasn’t a lot of stability. Discipline was insane,” she said. “The fire alarm would go off sometimes 5 times a day just from kids pulling it. I couldn’t send a kid to the office unless a kid threatened to kill me — which did happen my second year.”
Currently: Nicole continued teaching at her school, though is now considering other options. “If you asked me 5 years ago when I first stepped foot into my school, I would not have predicted that I would still be here. However, when I go back every year, it just feels right. I am good at what I do, and I love my students,” she said. “I would like to create change at a larger level, so I would like to go back to school to get my doctorate in educational policy.”
Of note: “The math teacher—a TFA colleague—and myself had some of the highest test scores (on the state exams) in our school after our first year teaching. The scores weren’t where they needed to be, but they were higher,” she said. “We worked really, really hard and then the principal would ask us to present to the whole school, and there we were, first-year teachers, telling 15-year teachers how to work.”
“In the same way that Austin College taught us to think, I teach my students to think. Teaching is very personal; it is an extension of who I am,” Nicole said. “The professors at Austin College helped to shape me into the person I am and have thus influenced my teaching and my students.”
After teaching English in India during study abroad at Austin College, Nicole Moore ’08, a music and business administration major, Nicole applied for TFA because she “wanted to serve in a meaningful way and make a tangible impact in the world.”
Placement: Hickory Ridge Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught English as a Second Language. “My school was a relatively new facility and served predominately low-income African American and Hispanic students. I found that many of the teachers were frustrated in their roles, and the school was not very successful in creating student achievement,” she said.
Difficult moment: Nicole struggled with students who didn’t believe in themselves, including a second-grade boy who didn’t know how to read. “Over the course of the year, I saw these students blossom as they slowly but surely began to master phonics and read on their own. At the end of the school year, Jose eagerly sought out new books and told me, ‘I love to read, Ms. Moore,’” she said. “Seeing students change their outlook on education was by far the most rewarding part of being in the classroom.”
Currently: Pursuing a master’s degree in Public Affairs at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin, “to expand the impact I can have beyond simply my classroom to a larger problem in need of reform,” she said.
Of note: “Austin College definitely taught me the servant leadership skills I needed to be successful in my classroom and helped me develop innovative ways of dealing with challenges to find the best solutions,” she said. “The Austin College and Teach For America partnership is an excellent way for students to take the skills they gain at Austin College and put servant leadership into a real, challenging context.”