I ran a shorter version of this heartfelt essay on the education page in the AJC, but wanted to share the full piece here. This piece was written by math teacher Emily Desprez, a Teach for America teacher, after Cobb County’s decision not to proceed with plans to hire 50 Teach for America teachers.
By Emily Desprez
It’s 2:10 and the high school release bell just sounded. I arrived at school this morning at 6, but I won’t leave until 5. My students’ futures are at stake and are worthy of a few extra hours of my time. I am a 22-year- old high school math teacher at a Title 1 school in the Atlanta area. Less than five years ago I was a student at Sandy Creek High School in Fayette County.
It was then my passion for equal educational opportunities launched. I sat in an AP Calculus class taught by an inspiring teacher whose students consistently passed the final AP test –thereby automatically earning college credit. I looked around and saw mostly white faces. Conversely, the demographic mix of my non-AP English class reflected the black majority of Sandy Creek. I was puzzled. Why so few non-whites in my AP math and science courses? This question lingered in my head during my remaining time in high school and at Georgia Tech, where as an honors graduate, I earned a degree in business management.
While in college I received numerous scholarships, immersed myself in cultural events, volunteered around Atlanta and started an awareness group that focused on hunger and homelessness. I also studied abroad for a year. Much of my success at college was a direct result of the education I received at Sandy Creek.
As a senior at Tech, I applied for a position with Teach For America. TFA’s goal is to ensure that children, whose life circumstances put them at a disadvantage, are not denied an excellent education. TFA accomplishes this goal by identifying and fast-tracking leaders into teachers who are expected to put the education of children above all else. They reinforced this expectation by driving home a startling fact: only 8% of kids growing up in low-income communities graduate from college by age 24.
Only after filling out an application, writing an essay, participating in phone interviews, teaching a sample lesson, and attending a day-long interview was I accepted into the program. A program in which less than 10% of the applicants are accepted. To top off my joy, I was thrilled to learn that I would be teaching high school math in Atlanta.
Following my acceptance, I attended what TFA euphemistically calls “summer institute,” but is more like teacher’s boot camp. At “camp” I taught eighth grade math in an Atlanta Public School to middle school students who failed the CRCT. These summer school sessions focused on CRCT math to help the kids pass the CRCT and then move on to high school.
Each day, after teaching these classes, I attended intensive training workshops on topics that ranged from high-rigor lesson planning to classroom management. I learned about the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, Lee Canter’s Behavioral Management Cycle, special education practices, and differentiation based on student needs—many of the same topics discussed by my friends who studied education in college.
Although boot camp gave me the tools and knowledge I required as a first-time teacher, nothing could have fully prepared me for the day-to-day challenge of teaching algebra to 180 students of diverse backgrounds.
Still, on that first day of school in August, I entered my classroom knowing that every child has potential, and it was my mission, and as a teacher, my responsibility to ensure they would receive the education necessary to unleash it. I had come full circle from that day years ago in my high school AP Calculus class. I was ready.
During my first semester I built strong relationships with my students, some of whom had never passed a math class in high school without taking it multiple times, or were soon to be the first high school graduate in their family. I teach students who walk to school when they miss the bus, who live in two-bedroom apartments with 10 family members, who hated math for the first 16 years of their lives, or who never believed they could “dominate” (as we say in my classroom) every math problem they encounter — if they only believed in their potential and trusted that every problem has a solution.
I learn much from my students each day about the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged environment has on their school life. I’m reminded daily that poverty, broken homes, working parents, etc., are added hurdles that they and I, as their teacher, must overcome.
From this I’ve learned that success in the classroom is as much the teacher’s responsibility as it is the student’s. Each day when the 6:45 a.m. bus unloads my first period class of Math I repeaters, I’m reminded of the relationships we have built, of what I’ve learned from them, and what it takes to close the achievement gap between low-income schools and those in more affluent areas.
And so I was puzzled to read in The Atlanta Journal Constitution that the Cobb County Superintendent “averted a fight over Teach for America, withdrawing, at least for now, his proposal to hire 50 teachers from the program.” The article stated that Superintendent Michael Hinojosa wanted to hire TFA teachers to help close a gap in achievement at schools in South Cobb, where test scores have consistently lagged the district average.
Unfortunately, teachers and some board members were critical of the proposal, saying it undermined staff morale. How, I wondered, would hiring Teach for America teachers undermine staff morale?
I teach at a school where veteran teachers fully embrace my optimistic and exuberant personality, and consistently assist me in becoming a better teacher. Few know that I am not a “traditional teacher.” To them, I am a young college graduate who wanted to jump right into the heart of public education’s largest downfall: not offering equal opportunity to students from difficult circumstances. Many teachers I collaborate with also come from non-traditional backgrounds, such as accountants, journalists, and even a few with law degrees. I’m just another teacher.
I passed the GACE (Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators) for high school math in the 98th percentile. I immediately enrolled in an alternative certification program in which I will earn my renewable teaching certification by the end of this year. I attend almost every available staff development workshop because I want to do everything possible to ensure that my 180 students are receiving a rigorous math curriculum delivered with engaging and real-life applications.
Between my math department mentor at my school, my manager of teaching and leadership development at Teach for America, and my alternative certification program adviser, I am constantly receiving and reflecting on feedback from their observations of my teaching, lesson planning, and classroom management. Interestingly, my presence in my high school isn’t decreasing teacher morale.
So, I’m a typical TFA teacher and my co-teachers accept me as one of their own. Why won’t you, Cobb County teachers and board members, hire me? What is more important when it comes to hiring educators: a teaching degree or an individual who believes that the achievement gap must be closed, and is willing to do anything necessary to make that a reality?
If the Cobb County Board of Education put student achievement first, the question of whether or not reducing a few teachers’ level of morale in exchange for 50 Teach for America teachers wouldn’t even be asked. The answer is obvious.
To those opposing teachers in Cobb, I would like to share with you an excerpt from a thank-you note from one of my students: “You are my favorite math teacher ever! You always have patience and try to explain things so clearly. Thank you for having such a positive attitude toward students and trying to get us to do well and get good grades. Thank you for making me end my day in a good mood by always having a smile on your face and being so outgoing and understanding about things. Thanks for always being here for me when I need help, encouraging me to set and reach goals, for all the nice and kind things you have done to help me accomplish things at school. I had never made above a C in math before now. You motivate me to want to achieve my goals so I can be someone in life.”
“So I can be someone in life.” Talk about high morale. If I ever stop taking steps toward ensuring increased levels of student achievement I will stop teaching.
Should not the teachers in Cobb County have the same attitude –for the students? For high morale?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog