This guest post was contributed by Eli Klein, a Teach for America corps member working in Miami.
Just three weeks after graduating from Cornell University, I found myself on a plane to Miami to begin my training as a Teach For America (TFA) corps member. In that short space of time, I had transformed from an Ivy League alum to a math teacher at Grady High School in Atlanta for 47 high school juniors and seniors. I had begun a journey that, while superficially is only a two-year commitment in the classroom, will result in a lifelong commitment to advocating for education and improving the lives of the students I see every day.
Teach For America is a not-for-profit organization that enlists recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in low-income communities. TFA operates on five basic core values: relentless pursuit of results, sense of possibility, disciplined thought, respect and humility, and integrity. These are all designed to help end educational inequity in this country.
Since that initial course of summer training in Atlanta, I have been “in the trenches” as a high school algebra and geometry teacher at Miami Central Senior High School in the northwestern section of the city for the past year and a half. This time has been unforgettable but also something of an emotional roller coaster for both me and my students.
Though the obstacles can seem insurmountable, there are moments throughout my day that reinforces my motivation to serve and teach. That “aha” flash when I see a light bulb illuminate in a student’s head when she finally understands a concept. Or when I watch my students proceed with confidence and hope for their futures because they were finally given a chance. And when they hug me to thank me for helping them pass the FCAT, a statewide test required for graduation. These are the moments I live for.
I teach students who vary widely on the educational spectrum. My honors geometry class last year was filled with high level tenth graders. I worked relentlessly with them every day to ensure that they persevered through the myriad distractions that may limit student achievement in inner city schools. I also work with extremely low-level students who need a little more of a push to focus and comprehend the value of an excellent education. It is with these students where the startling realities of the achievement gap hit the hardest, and my grit and determination are tested. These students, however, have the greatest potential to make gains, and bear the greatest fruits of our labor.
During my first year of teaching I was also hired to be the head varsity baseball coach, inheriting a team that had not won a game in two years. Like my math students, my players’ baseball knowledge and skill sets varied widely. I had three college baseball prospects at the top of my lineup, but the rest was filled by young men, while athletic and dedicated to being part of the team, had never played the game in an organized setting and needed to be taught the rules from scratch. With a lot of hard work, our team made unbelievable strides and won four games last season. This year, we’ve been practicing throughout the off-season to continue our momentum into the district playoffs. In addition to the athletic success, I’ve been privileged to help a number of these student-athletes grow academically and socially. I have gotten to know my players on a much deeper level. I have helped them channel their abilities into a productive and enjoyable activity that has turned them into team players and kept them out of trouble. With our “productivity focus,” almost all of them have seen improvement in their grades.
Furthermore, I serve as the sponsor of the Math Club. I have my students set up on an online stock challenge where they all begin with $10,000 of “play” money, which they are able to invest the money in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds as they track their progress. Along the way we discuss various investment strategies. (Despite my role as advisor, I am currently in twelfth place out of 23 students, which shows the true depth of my market insight.) The students are eager for more and I am currently in the process of planning a trip to the University of Miami to sit in on an upper-level finance class, as well as a trip to the Miami Stock Exchange.
From an early age my parents instilled in me a sense of social responsibility. It is this mindset that guided me as I made my decision to join Teach For America, and it informs and motivates me daily. At this point in time, however, I no longer view my work as “giving back” or “engaging in service.” Instead, I see it as my responsibility as both a Jew and a citizen of this country to bear to witness to the frightening realities of the achievement gap and work in the classroom to help close it.
If you are currently a college junior, senior, or young professional thinking about what you would like to do with your life, researching Teach For America is a must. Please notice how I emphasized, “What you would like to do with your life” and not the “next two years.” Perhaps some corps members do not remain beyond their original contract but TFA’s goal is not merely to put high achieving college grads into inner city classrooms for a couple of years. It is to create and foster within these teachers a lifelong commitment to education, whether inside the classroom as a teacher or outside as an advocate of reform.
To learn more about TFA, the application process and procedures, visit their website. Also, there is nothing more invaluable than going on a classroom visit. If you are interested in applying, contact your local office and ask to arrange a visit with a corps member so you can witness firsthand the impact you can have on the lives young students.