Remember the 'I Quit Teach for America' essay? Here's the counterpoint. 'I stayed.'

One alum recounts what helped him persevere.

By

Friday, October 4, 2013

 

A close head shot of a young man with buzzed brown hair smiling at a house party, wearing a gray sweater.

 

Tre Tennyson

Tre Tennyson spent two years with Teach for America at an Atlanta school and is planning now to teach in China.

He wrote this piece in response to a former TFA at the same APS school where he taught who wrote about why she bailed out of the program a year early. Olivia Blanchard's "I Quit Teach for America" in the Atlantic has gotten a lot of attention, including here on the blog.

I predict Tennyson's piece will command equal attention:

By Tre Tennyson

Last week, I came across a provocative headline: “I Quit Teach for America.”

As an alum of TFA, it caught my attention. And when I saw the author’s name, I clicked eagerly. Contributor Olivia Blanchard and I were fifth grade teachers at Dobbs Elementary before she made the decision she details in her piece.

We went through the same training, taught in the same school, on the same grade level, with the same team, in the same year, and with the same group of kids – her in math and science, me in ELA and reading.

And yet our experiences could not have been more different.

Like every first year teacher – whatever his or her training– my early days in the classroom were challenging. But where these challenges struck Olivia as the product of the failure of her training or of some fundamental flaw in the group of kids she’d been dealt, for me they served as an opportunity to dig in.

On one particularly frustrating day that first fall, I sent an SOS email to the support team that had gotten me this far – including my Teach for America teacher coach, an APS advisor assigned to me from outside the school, and two or three of the teachers at Dobbs who had been particularly generous with their time, help and expertise. 

In their responses, I found what I needed. My TFA coach made two extra visits to my classroom that week, followed by extensive goals for restructuring. Dr. D, a fellow teacher, shared her incredible unit on the Civil War.

My APS advisor shared the story of her first semester and assisted me with students throughout the week. Taylor Ramsey, head of teacher development for TFA, came to observe me the next day and assisted in crafting a framework for student success.

Thinking about the fundamental tenets of my training and the strategies shared across some of the strongest classrooms in my school, my strategy became clear. If I was going to motivate my students to rise to my high expectations, I would have to do a lot more to figure out what made them tick.

And they’d have to know me better too – to understand why I was pushing so hard. This would mean engaging with them outside the confines of normal class time. It would mean foot races during recess, calling them to help with homework, touring historic Atlanta sites with them and their families on the weekends.

Day by day, I began to see real progress. Every day brought victories and setback, moments of breakthrough paired with flashes of frustration. But the change was undeniable. You could feel it in our classroom culture – with kids supporting and encouraging each other – and we would see it in our results.

That spring, 100 percent of my students passed the ELA exam and 90 percent were proficient or above in reading. Down the hall, Donna Jenkins, the third corps member at our school, led our fifth graders to a 95 percent pass rate in math and 97 percent in science.

Getting there had taken a village, but my colleagues at Dobbs and Teach for America were the village my kids and I needed. 

Teach for America never promised that any of this would be easy. In fact, TFA was very realistic about the challenges one would face – how small our victories might feel in the light of setbacks. But they also taught us that mindset matters. As Ms. Jenkins put it, "The training set the tone for what was expected when I entered into the school building, but my drive and willingness to learn allowed me to successfully complete the commitment that I made to teach children."

 As a teacher, it falls to you to do your part to make sure that every kid – no matter how “ill-behaved” he may seem or what kind of challenges she faces outside of school gets the support needed to live a life of opportunity and choice. In our first year, we were fortunate enough to have access to tremendous resources as we set out to do this – both informally from a full staff of teachers and administrators who made themselves readily available and formally from our Teach for America coaches, our Atlanta Public Schools advisors, and the on-site mentors our school provided.

Ultimately, I think Olivia’s decision to join the 8 percent of corps members who decide to leave before their two years are up was the right one for her and her kids. Despite urgings from me and others to accept the offers of help that came her way (and which we so eagerly jumped at), time after time, she declined. There was always a reason not to bother – the system, the kids, the parents, TFA.

At the end of the day, I value any conversation about what’s happening in our highest need schools. To its credit, Olivia’s piece highlights the need to continue to improve training for early career teachers and demonstrates just how challenging it can be to engage and inspire students in historically underserved communities.

But it is here where, in my mind, the value of this particular testimonial ends. Having watched my students grow academically and personally, I reject her suggestion that we must be satisfied when the kids at Dobbs and other schools like it “learn to say please and thank you” or that we should blame their “wobbly fingers” for consistent underperformance that would simply not be tolerated in higher-income neighborhoods. 
I expected my students to be citizens of my classroom – kind to one another, respectful, generous. I also expected them to master the skills that would put them on a path to lives of choice and opportunity. They exceeded my expectations time and time again.

The world should know about them.

This post has been cross-posted with permission from the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Get Schooled blog. You can see the original post here.

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