When I joined the corps after college graduation in 2004, my parents were pretty confused about the whole “teaching thing.”  As my two-year “phase” turned into three then six, and more and more 13-year-olds plastered my Facebook page with graduation announcements, my parents began to make peace with (and take pride in) the fact that teaching middle school was my calling.

And then I had to go and shock them all again.

I accepted a position as a pre-K teacher. My parents, along with former colleagues, principals, and friends from Teach for America became vocal critics of how I was choosing to serve in education.  They responded with a resounding cry:

“But that’s not real teaching.”

Thank goodness I didn’t believe them.

My three years at Liberty County Pre-K Center were truly the most pivotal and developmental years in my professional life, and I share a few rebuttals to some common ECE myths in hopes that you will join me, along with our co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard and our Early Childhood Initiative, in speaking out for the power of our littlest learners:

Teach For America co-CEO Matt Kramer announced the launch of the organization’s new special education initiative aimed at creating more leaders in this burgeoning education movement. In explaining the rationale behind the initiative, Kramer cites alarming statistics about the gap between SPED students and their peers, and shares his own personal experience going through the school system with an undiagnosed learning disability.

Illinois has removed the cap the on number of times aspiring teachers can take the state’s required basic skills test. The cap, which was placed as quality-control measure, ultimately posed a catch-22: it improved the quality of teaching talent, but it also decreased the diversity of the state’s teaching force.

Brittany Packnett

A 3rd grader at Little Wound School, taught by Brittany Brendsel (South Dakota 2008).

Looking back, my 24th year was a formative one. After living in St. Louis all my life, I suddenly found myself in DC teaching 30 phenomenal 8-year-olds. I was absorbing everything I could about life, relentlessness, trackers, and teaching (and I was occasionally getting stuck in the wrong lane on Dupont Circle).

I saw this newness in my life as an open door. It was an opportunity to get clear on what I knew to be true, define my beliefs, and take deliberate action on them. I knew every child was capable of excellence, and my students proved that true each day. I believed I could build lifelong friendships in a brand-new city, and sure enough, I stood with three of my fellow 2007 DC corps members—all of whom are still in education—just last month as one of us walked down the aisle. I wanted to conquer diagonal streets and quadrant living, so I volunteered to drive my friends everywhere with OnStar as my guide.

Twenty-four was an important year. I had the wind at my back, promise in front of me, and more responsibility and hope than ever before. I had learned enough to know that if I wanted to live out my purpose and impact my world, I would need to intentionally form myself into the leader I needed to be for those I stood beside in my school community.

Teach For America’s 24th year is similar in many ways. We’re younger than some of our colleagues in education, but we have made critical differences in classrooms and have learned a great deal along the way. In our young adulthood, we’ve had to become clear on what we stand for. In this way, the “What’s Next at Teach For America?” event last month served as a purposeful resolution: a declaration of who we are, what we believe, and a commitment to listen, learn, grow, and prove.

First grade students taught by Cait Clark (South Carolina '12) at Bennettsville Primary School in Bennettsville, South Carolina.

On March 21st, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights arm released a chilling, but very real set of statistics that we’ll most likely be discussing for years to come. The data reveals racial disparities in access to rigorous secondary courses, certified and experienced teachers, and school punishment. But perhaps the most discomfiting revelation has to do with the frequency in which black preschoolers are being punished through suspension. Namely, black children represent only 18% of total preschool enrollment, but make up nearly half of all children who are suspended more than once.

I learned of these findings when I was at the TFA - New Jersey 20th Anniversary Summit. It was a day meant to celebrate how far we’ve come both regionally and nationally in our fight for educational equity, yet this sobering news reminded us how far there remains to strive. On a day meant to invigorate and inspire us on our way to helping our kids apprehend their dreams, we were forced to countenance the shrill reality that our nation remains fastened to a legacy of structural and historical oppression —a legacy that, by default, criminalizes black and brown even before they can fully apprehend a pencil. Multiple speakers referenced the unsettling data and we realized that insofar as structural oppression persists along racial, class, gender, or any other lines, true “high-quality education” is not merely a goal for the “underprivileged.”

We grieved and vented together. Next, we act. Below are a few interrelated reflections designed to spur our feelings into actions that will help to right this narrative.

Amanda Chavez Barnes

Amanda Chavez Barnes with her tio Paul

Pass The Chalk shares this reflection on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31st, in honor of Chavez and his legacy.

My mother was a huge fan of Selena Quintanilla Perez, and so, when the singer died at an early age in 1995, she bought every magazine she could find that had Selena’s image on the cover. We talked about Selena’s life and honored her memory by listening to her music.

But when Cesar Chavez had passed away just two years earlier, we didn’t see any magazine covers or newspapers with Chavez’s image emblazoned on the front, and we didn’t hear anything about him on the news or the radio. My mother—the woman who told me stories about being locked in a closet during the day with her younger siblings while her older siblings went out into the fields to pick crops with their parents—had never heard of Cesar Chavez. She had no idea who he was. And because the Metro Atlanta schools I attended never taught me about Latino history or celebrated Latino heritage, neither did I.

I didn’t know anything until my mom’s eldest brother, my tio Paul, came to live with us after serving a decade-long bid in a Texas penitentiary. Prison taught my tio what school never did. He learned about his heritage and himself in the oral histories that OGs handed down, and in the pages of the books that he had access to behind bars but had never seen in a classroom. And from the very first day Tio Paul arrived, he began to instill in me a deep sense of dignity and pride in my heritage.

A few years ago, well into my thirties, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

In some ways, this was not news. My memories of my own education primarily revolve around the ways I wasn't learning -- disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework and reading no books. I couldn't maintain focus on what a teacher was saying for more than a few minutes, and I couldn't read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Even the slightest distraction -- noise from a television a few rooms away -- would render me completely unable to concentrate.

But getting the official diagnosis turned out to be tremendously important. The story I told myself about my challenges in school was that I wasn't interested in anything that could be taught there, and so it wasn't worth applying myself. I'm embarrassed by the ways I wasted the opportunity to learn during my time in school. But with a diagnosis and treatment, I developed a new story: I love to learn, and I want to work hard to do so, and I can learn as much and as well as anyone else with a few simple accommodations, including a project-based learning environment and medication to help me focus.

I was fortunate to have family and teachers who helped me navigate my way through school and make the best of the situation, and things turned out fine for me in the end. But I often think back to those 17 years and imagine how they might have been different if there had been a good plan to tailor my education to the way I learned best. Unfortunately, too many students with learning differences, and in particular students of color and those growing up in low-income communities, aren't getting the supports they need and deserve.

On Monday, Illinois became the first state to opt out of the Common Core standards. Heated debates about the standards continue in many other states: this year only, there have been more than 100 bills introduced in state legislatures to slow, stop, or reverse the standards.

Cathy Kang

Nixlot Dameus

This school year, I was assigned to teach a course called “The Art and Craft of Poetry.” I was excited about the creative journey that could possibly ensue—but I also was dreading the daunting task of filling 90 minutes a day with poetry, five days a week, for five months. My first students had much the same reaction. They filed through the door—some misunderstanding the course as semester-long “arts and crafts” session—and were either excited about what the course would possibly entail, or clearly dreading the thought of poetry.

“Ms. Kang, isn’t this an elective?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t pick it.”

“Great. Welcome to poetry.”

One of those first students was Nixlot, a 15-year-old teenage body-builder who was always the first one to class, wielding his bulky gym bag. Recognized throughout the school for breaking lifting records, Nixlot was most known for his strength. In my classroom, however, he also proved to be a leader. While many boys were preoccupied with balling up paper and playing trashketball when my back was turned, Nixlot was the student picking up the crumpled balls and appropriately placing them in the bin. To me, his silent gestures of service spoke louder than the state records blasting through the school loudspeaker.

(Photo credit: Julio Ibarra)

Recently, Nashville had the pleasure of welcoming President Obama to McGavock High School, one of our local public schools. It was a moment of great pride for our city as the president highlighted the work in Nashville schools that he would like to encourage throughout the country.

The event was joyful, with plenty of happiness and buzz among the many people who work long hours and early mornings, and tackle intellectual, political, and societal problems to make sure every child in our city has a great education. These folks—teachers, students, parents, district leaders, school leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, nonprofit leaders—often work in anonymity toward this goal, so it was fun to take a moment to celebrate.

For me, the best part of the event was when President Obama recognized McGavock High School teacher Barclay Randall. Mr. Randall, a broadcast teacher (who was taping the event with a few students and wiped away tears of joy as he was being lauded) had transformed the lives of many students—and in particular, that of Sara Santiago.

“When Sara was in Mr. Randall’s class, he helped her discover this passion for filmmaking,” President Obama said. “And pretty soon, Sara’s grades started to improve. She won the school’s ‘Best Editing’ award. Then she got an internship with Country Music Television—one of [the school’s] business partners. And then she was accepted to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. And she gives credit to Mr. Randall for this. She says, ‘Mr. Randall gave me a second chance. He saw things I never saw in myself. He’s the person who helped me change.’”

I appreciate that President Obama took the time to recognize the work and accomplishments of a teacher. As districts around the country are deep in recruitment season, I am trying to reconcile the collective celebration and appreciation we seem to have for teachers with the reality that far too many prospective teachers still hear: “You are too”—fill in the blank: smart, driven, etc.—“to be a teacher.”

The Common Core, a new rigorous set of national standards for schools, has been one of the most polarizing introductions to the American education system in recent years. Four Teach For America corps members and Alums share their thoughts on the new standards, and how the Common Core has shaped their teaching.

Schools today are trying hard to make students uncomfortable. However, behind this seemingly sinister goal are the best of intentions. With extensive research data showing the importance of grit in determining students’ future success, educators want students to become comfortable with struggling, and to see facing obstacles as a natural part of learning.

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About Us

We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed on Pass the Chalk are the responsibility of individual bloggers. Unless explicitly stated, blog posts do not represent the views of Teach For America as an organization. 

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