Pass the Chalk

For Kadeem Gill (NYC ’11), teaching is personal. When he was growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he was confronted every day with the ways in which school systems had failed his younger brother, who had an individualized education program (IEP) for behavioral and emotional challenges, and the community at large. Gill eventually left New York to attend Princeton University, but during his sophomore year, the unthinkable happened: his older brother was killed.

“I had no idea how to put myself back together,” Gill says, adding that his way of coping with the loss was to give back to others. He started volunteering as a dance instructor in the Princeton community and decided to apply to Teach For America. In 2011, he officially launched his teaching career in the Bronx, just a few miles from his old stomping grounds in Bed Stuy.

The Friday Five is Teach For America's weekly roundup of education news, stories, and links that made us think. 

A few weeks ago, a student changed my life. I’m currently in my sophomore year at Cornell University and have been considering exploring my passion for education and community building through Teach For America.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in a TFA teacher’s classroom through TFA’s One Week For America program, which paired 31 selected college students with TFA teachers across NYC. We spent our winter break immersed in New York’s public schools, getting a hands-on feel for what it’s like to be a teacher. We spent our days in the classroom with students, and our evenings in workshops where we learned more about the teaching profession.

As a product of New York City Public Schools, I was moved by the students I met. I grew up in a low-income community just like theirs, and I stood in their shoes only a decade ago. I know their struggles, their doubts, and the life they are dreaming about. I was determined to prove to them that they could exceed their own expectations. There was one student in particular who stuck with me, but I wasn’t sure she saw the potential in herself that I did—so I wrote her a letter.

luke glaser

After spending my entire life in a city, I became a rural educator. Aesthetically, my urban hometown and new rural home seem worlds apart. Main Street in Louisville, my hometown, is crossed daily by thousands of pedestrians and drivers, while Main Street in Hazard, Kentucky, where I teach, hosts only the occasional pedestrian strolling past its local businesses, banks, and churches. Now in my second year teaching math at Hazard High School, I’ve learned urban and rural main streets share much more than a name. 

Let’s be honest: a rural young professional is not what mainstream culture considers traditional (or cool). There are no high rise lofts or Uber drivers, and few late-night venues stay open past midnight. Yet, for what could be perceived as a less-than-glamorous way to spend one’s twenties, I embrace and love the experiences I have had in my city of 4,500.

It’s Friday afternoon, and students are flooding past me in joyous celebration of their upcoming vacation. It had been a torturous Friday of all Fridays (aren’t they all?), and I was ready to partake in some celebrations of my own with my colleagues when I ran across one of the students who had helped make my Friday particularly wearing. I was expecting nothing short of a cold shoulder when she passed by, but was both surprised and relieved when she stopped dead center in front of me to ask a question I have heard too many times this school year.

“Ms. Escobar, why don’t you like me anymore?” she asked.

Far from astounded, I knew I had heard her correctly, and she stared, waiting for my response. “We used to be friends,” she said. “And now you’re treating me differently. You’re not the same.” I responded like I have to almost all of the students who have confronted me with similar arguments this year, and I said, “Shani, I haven’t changed. I’m holding you to the same standards as everyone else, and you don’t want to hop on board.”

Teach For America’s Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships team

On Saturday, January 24 a group of about 50 students aged 9-13 and their chaperones attended a professional hockey game in Rapid City, South Dakota (many for the first time). The outing was a reward; the students were part of the school’s 21st Century program and had demonstrated academic success. A fellow attendee not affiliated with the group described the students as “some of the best behaved he’s seen.”

During the third period of the game, the group was forced to leave out of concerns for their safety. From the suite above where the students sat in the stands, intoxicated individuals allegedly poured beer on the students and peppered them with racially-motivated slurs.

The management of both the hockey arena and the company who owns the suite have issued statements apologizing for what happened. Police are investigating the incident.

And there’s a good chance this is the first you’re hearing of it.

Today, the New York Times published an article on a trend we’re seeing this year across the education field at large—a dip in interest in entering teaching. We addressed this trend in a recent piece for the Huffington Post—looking into some of the reasons behind it, and also the ways we’re feeling that dip here at Teach For America.

While our partners’ needs for corps members and alumni are at an all-time high, persuading young Americans to choose this work is tougher than ever. In the shadow of the recession, college graduates are moving away from public and service-oriented work and gravitating towards professions they perceive as more stable and financially sustainable. The polarized conversation around education isn’t helping, either.

Overall, we’re confident that the current dip we and others are seeing will pass. And while the decrease in interest we’re seeing this season will be painful for our school partners and their students who are counting on us for 6,000 teachers, it’s critical to keep the macro trend of the last 15 years in mind. Over that longer period, we’ve seen significantly more interest from our next generation of leaders in teaching in low-income communities, be it through TFA, TNTP, or other pathways.

The Friday Five is Teach For America's weekly roundup of education news, stories, and links that made us think. 

cara mcclellan

It was the third time I had to stop because LeShawn was talking out of turn. “You owe me time,” I said, a shorthand that he knew meant he would be serving detention during gym class. Gym was one of his favorite classes, and I knew he was upset. I watched his reaction to make sure he did not show his feelings inappropriately. Instead he just shook his head and looked down. Although he was known around the building as a troublemaker, he usually did well in my class, and I could tell he was embarrassed that he had gotten in trouble.

As I started lining the class up for gym and reminded him he was staying for detention, I heard him mumble, “Man, I wish I had a real black teacher. Black teachers don’t give detention.”

Zarabeth Davis

“Mommy, mommy!  Come look at our hands!” my 4 year old exclaimed as we entered his preschool one morning. His class has been talking about “helping hands” and how to care for one another in their classroom community. He wanted to show me his masterpiece: a rainbow striped handprint over-emphasizing the green band, his favorite color. He then showed me the helper chart and used his strong pre-literacy skills to explain all of the important classroom jobs and which of his friends would be doing what jobs.

The growth young children make as they enter their preschool years is always amazing to see as a classroom teacher; the independence they develop, the boom in their language, the way their minds process the world through why questions, and how their world begins to shift from ego-centric to more mindful of others and the different perspectives of the world. Now that I’m on the parent side of that development, I truly appreciate strong teachers and how they orchestrate so much of this growth through their thoughtful, intentional work.    


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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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