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Bridging the Achievement Gap: What It’s Like to Teach For America

Amber Moore Picmonkey

In the immortal words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer / school’s out forever.” But if the idea of joining the real world is creeping you out more than Alice’s signature makeup, you don’t have to leave the scholastic life behind just yet.

Teach For America gives recent grads the opportunity to teach in Pre-K through 12th grade classrooms in 48 regions throughout the US. The program trains volunteers and sends them to low-income communities on two-year assignments. If you’re passionate about overcoming educational inequality and want to approach this issue from within the classroom, Teach For America may be right for you.

Join us as we chat with Amber Moore, a Psychology and Sociology double major (with an Education minor) from Cornell who completed her two-year program with Teach For America and will be returning for a third year this fall.

Where and when did you participate in Teach For America?

I was placed in Belzoni, a rural community in the Mississippi Delta, about 2.5 hours south of Memphis and two hours north of Jackson. In my first year (2011–2012), I taught 10th–12th graders Human Anatomy & Physiology and two classes of 9th grade Intro to Bio classes. In my second year (2012–2013), I taught Biology 1 to mostly 9th graders, but some other grade levels as well. Next year (2013–2014), I’ll be teaching Biology 1 again.

What was the Teach For America application process like? How long did it take and were there any unexpected surprises along the way?

The application process is relatively intense. The first step was to apply online with a 500-word personal statement and submit my résumé. Then I was invited to a phone interview, where I had to discuss a video that I had watched and answered questions about. Following the phone interview I was invited to do a five-minute sample lesson, a group interview, group activity, logistical assessment, and individual interview.

There are several different application deadlines throughout the year. I started my application in the fall (around September) and I was accepted in November.

What is a typical day on the job like?

I actually live 40 minutes away from where I teach, so on a typical day, I wake up at 5:50 a.m., carpool with other teachers, and get to school around 7 a.m. I set up labs and prepare for the day. At my school, we have a seven-period day, and I teach six periods. We take the students to lunch so I sit with them and eat with them during lunchtime. I tutor until 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. Once home, on a good day, I’ll go for a run or go to the gym. Then, I usually spend from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. grading papers, lesson planning, etc.

What were some things that surprised you about your experience?

The biggest surprise for me was that the school system is still heavily segregated, especially in the Mississippi Delta region. We had two Caucasian students and five or six Hispanic students out of 500 and the majority are African-American. I don’t think it is true for all parts of Mississippi, but in the Delta there is a polarized community and school system. Before moving to the South I knew that the achievement gap affected a majority of minority students. However, the stark divide between the public and private schools in Mississippi was still a shock.

What were your favorite aspects of your Teach For America experience? What were some challenges you faced?

Many of the schools in the Delta are either failing or on the verge of failing so there is a lot of pressure from the state to perform well on the state tests. Schools will go through ridiculous measures to ensure that they are covered if their school fails again. This normally results in lots of paperwork, and accountability that falls on the teachers.

Furthermore, many students, especially at the high school level, are not invested in their educations. They have spent their prior nine years of education growing up without the idea that they can go to college or the knowledge of what needs to take place to make this a reality. This results in about 75% of your job in your first and second year of teaching being taken up by managing classroom behavior and investing your students in learning. That being said, you will have some students that you LOVE, students that try so hard, and want to learn, and really appreciate you for teaching.

My favorite aspect of my Teach For America experience is definitely working with the students. There are so many students who are in the worst situations and you really feel for them. However, by pushing them academically, you know you’re giving them a chance. As a teacher you can motivate students to work towards a goal and teach them skills and behaviors that they will be able to apply to their lives outside of the classroom as well. My favorite part of the job is pushing students to ask more of themselves and watching them grow throughout the year, meeting the expectations that they once thought impossible.

Furthermore, I really value the relationships that I have built with fellow staff and community members. There are so many amazing non-TFA educators that have been fighting the same battle that we fight as Corps members for decades. Their passion and resilience in the even the hardest of situations motivates me to continue to fight every day for our students.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for Teach For America?

You need to be passionate about the problem. Have a serious fire to help out others through educating and be knowledgeable about the achievement gap in the US. If you want to see what’s really going on and work your butt off, you won’t regret it, but it will be ridiculously hard. You are learning first-hand about one of the most intense issues our country is facing. You will see the socioeconomic and racial divide so much more than anyone could even begin to explain in a college lecture hall.

If you’d like to read more, there’s a book called Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America that’s written by a TFA alum, Donna Foote.

Can you recommend any resources that were helpful to you throughout your experience?

TFA has a blog and other resources online, but I would say that my biggest resource was the network of Corps members and local teachers that I bonded with in my community.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you choose to apply to Teach For America, your time in the Corps will be challenging. It pushes buttons that you did not even know you had. It will keep you up at night thinking about what you can do better and how you can help your students more. However, it will be worth it. No other experience will show you the inside of one of the biggest problems that our country faces more than this. No job will fire you up more than teaching. Joining Teach For America and the movement to close the achievement gap will leave you heartbroken and inspired all at once.

To sum it up, it is challenging, but it is totally worth it. This nation needs teachers who are passionate about closing the achievement gap and teachers who have the energy to help students in the low-income communities realize their potential. However, be aware that after you join Teach for America, your commitment to working to end educational inequity will not feel finished after your two years of teaching. You will more than likely find yourself thinking about the students that you taught, and devoting your life in some way to helping to solve one of our nation’s most pressing issues, educational inequity.

Amber Moore completed two years of Teach For America and will return for a third year in the fall of 2013. She’s also in the process of studying for the GRE and looking into PhD programs in Education. She plans to continue teaching.

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