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Teach for America panel offers lesson in its program

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prospective teachers and hopeful educators filled Wilson 101 last night for a Teach for America informational panel featuring various former teachers who currently are in different careers and stages of life. Led by Lisa Krauthamer, senior recruitment director for Teach For America, the session was devoted to giving students a sense both of the logistics of TFA and a preview of what their experience might be like.

The panel included Nancy Van der Veer, Emily McElveen ’04 MD’10 and University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, who did not participate in TFA but has had a similar teaching experience. The panel members described their experiences teaching, sharing not only the uplifting and positive aspects of the program, but also revealing some of the more discouraging and disheartening parts of their experience.

“I wasn’t sent by Teach for America but I can remember a few comments about the – and I’ll leave out the invective – the liberal from the Western suburbs fancy school … who’s trying to change everything. I was trying to survive,” said Cooper-Nelson. But she said that ultimately the other teachers at the schools were just frustrated with the poor resources they had. “Almost everyone I met in the years I taught dearly wanted their kids to do well. They wanted their classrooms to be successful. They themselves had a dream.”

But all the panel members, despite the struggles they had to face in their schools, remembered fondly the impact of teaching in a school.

“The privilege of being somebody’s teacher is one that if I could give everybody here, I would,” said Cooper Nelson.

For Van der Veer, who is now a lawyer, TFA allowed her to explore a field she enjoyed before going to law school. “I felt like I wanted some real world experience doing something I felt good about,” she told the crowd.

Krauthamer told The Herald that TFA has given her the opportunity to work for something she believes in. “It feels good to be part of a movement that is actually working to change things and for being a part of something that has a goal in mind and we’re going all out in it,” she said. “It makes me hopeful that we could live in a society that lives up the ideal of equal opportunity. It makes me hopeful that things could change.”

Krauthamer described the condition of education in the United States today, evoking as an example high school graduates who were only at an eighth grade level of learning.

Krauthamer also spoke of a recent Gallup poll which revealed that many Americans feel problems with education stem from students not wanting to learn and their parents not caring. She disagreed that parents’ indifference was the heart of the problem: “What parents don’t want their kids to do well? What parents don’t want their kids to excel in life?” she asked those gathered. “I have not met those parents.”

After explaining how TFA could help these schools, panelists opened the floor to questions. The questions ranged from logistics – such as the application process, housing and training in the TFA program – to the more personal, including what problems and struggles they had to face.

One question concerned the training process. The panel members described that TFA starts with a five week training institute that goes over lesson plans and methods for motivating kids. “It’s like teacher boot camp,” said Van der Veer. “You sleep very little and work very, very hard. Because I think once you start the learning you realize how much there is to learn and then you spend pretty much every waking hour trying to soak in as much as possible.”

Marta daSilva ’09 said she appreciated the honesty from the panel members. “I thought it was really even handed because they are not just spitting out how awesome Teach for America is like you would imagine from other information sessions,” she said. “They were pretty realistic and down to earth about all their responses, which is really helpful because they are not just telling you all the glamorous things – they are getting down to it, but at the same time not making it so unappealing I wouldn’t want to work for them.”

Gabe Kussin ’09, a campus campaign coordinator for TFA, who visits classes and student groups to recruit, said spreading the word has been successful at Brown. “People really know about TFA here,” he said.

Morgan Whitworth ’09, who was attending the information session, said there was a good chance he would participate in TFA. He liked “the opportunity to immediately go into a classroom” and have the autonomy to run it “without having to go through super rigorous training, but at the same time to be able to immediately engage at the ground level with the students,” he said.

“I do think it’s a very valuable and meaningful way to spend two years,” he added.

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