From the beginning, part two: Corps members share their first year of service
February 22, 2022
Over the course of this school year, Teach for America Idaho is featuring interviews with two entering corps members, to track in real time how their experience is progressing as they begin their teaching careers.
The first interview with Whitney Owens took place shortly before the school year started. You can read it here. The interview below took place in January, after Whitney had completed her first semester as a TFA corps member and had some solid experience upon which she could reflect. She is teaching third grade at Centennial Elementary School in Nampa.
Whitney was born in Idaho but spent most of her childhood in Virginia. She moved to Boston after high school and attended Bunker Hill Community College. She transferred to the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus, where she received an associate’s degree in foreign language and theater. She then received a full scholarship from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. She graduated with a degree in peace and social justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TFA: Hi, Whitney. We look forward to checking back in to see how the reality of teaching in the fall of 2021 stacked up to your hopes and expectations. When we talked last fall you said the biggest educational challenge you hoped to address was "empowering my students to be able to overcome those barriers in their lives that are linked to income or their location." How has that gone so far this school year?
Whitney: Those are pretty lofty ambitions. And they are still my ambitions. However, when you look at the nitty gritty of what these kids are experiencing, largely because of COVID, a number of them are at kindergarten reading level, and they are third-graders. So my focus right now is I need to get them to a point where they're able to read or where they're able to even comprehend the material that they're being given so that they can feel confident saying “I understand what is set in front of me.”
This whole generation will be affected by the pandemic. I would love to be able to help these kids climb the mountain that has been set before them. Many of them have been set back at least a year and a half worth of curriculum. But it’s not just that. Their sense of self-confidence and self-esteem has been hurt by looking at something and having to say “I can’t read it.”
TFA: And third grade is such a crucial year. There is a lot of research that shows that kids not reading at grade level by the end of third grade have real challenges catching up later. What are you doing to try to help them catch up?
Whitney: For these students, their last normal year of school was kindergarten. They didn't have any learning for the last quarter of the first grade year. And it seems that they got stunted there and almost forgot what happened in first grade. So it’s no wonder they are behind.
I have started to shift my mentality away from trying to accomplish what the prescribed minutes are for the curriculum a day and instead making sure I spend the necessary time on intervention every single day that actually meets them at their current reading level. If I try to meet those timelines every day of 90 minutes for math, 120 minutes for English Language Arts, then I'm so stressed out that they feel my stress, and they don't enjoy themselves.
If I'm thinking I have to get them through this curriculum, that’s really very arbitrary. And I'm realizing that is not the most important thing, and it is doing a disservice to them. They're going to start to hate learning because their teacher is not connected to their real life and their real needs.
I also have them doing more practice work here at the end of the day. Earlier in the year, I was asking them to take this home as homework. But I’ve come to realize that many of these parents are struggling financially and working multiple jobs, and so the majority of my students don't get help on their homework. Better to do it here, where I can help them.
TFA: Last fall, when we asked what your biggest worry about starting your teaching career, you said having everything planned out for every hour of every day, so that the students would see that you were prepared and confident. Has that worry changed, or been validated?
Whitney: Those worries were very valid because I never felt in control until late in the fall. Again, it’s pandemic-related, but at the beginning of the year, it was like they were on the island and it was a Lord of the Flies situation. Their ability to stay focused at school and to follow expectations was not there. Kids were jumping over tables, they were throwing things, they were fighting with each other constantly, and talking out of turn constantly. It was rough.
I got a lot of help from TFA, with my coach and my mentor, and eventually I got my classroom management techniques figured out. The students’ attention spans were extremely short and I had to chunk everything into smaller pieces.
When I had my parent-teacher conferences in November, I was able to really connect with the parents, hear about their lives, hear feedback from them about how school was going, and enlist their support. And a lot of parents became real allies and even come into the classroom during certain times of the week to support me. They have been awesome.
TFA: Has this year created new worries or anxieties for you as a teacher?
Whitney: I just want my kids to become people who can work through conflict in a productive way. I want them to learn that you can experience growth when you’re going through hard times and say: “it was hard. But it didn't knock me all the way down. I was able to get back up.” I want to develop resilience in these kids. Right now I see a lot of apathy in them.
TFA: Finally, last fall we asked what you were most excited about, and you said getting to know the kids and forming a community, gaining their trust and building relationships. Has that changed?
Whitney: No. That's why I keep doing this. My goal is to have a transformative impact on my kids. I want to be the teacher they had in elementary school they always look back on and remember as important in their life. I want to be the teacher they invite to their high school graduation. I want them to know I will always be there for them.