Teach For America Teacher Finds Differences Are Made One Breakthrough at a Time

Published December 21, 2009

Teach for America—the 19-year-old program that puts recent college graduates into underserved classrooms for two years—is an effort to make a difference in failing schools by bringing in a different kind of teacher. This academic year, a TFA teacher is taking SRN readers through her experiences in the classroom.

As I write now, I am about two months into my teaching career, and so far nothing in my teaching career has followed the traditional path for first-year teachers. As a Teach for America corps member I studied economics and history, and instead of completing a student-teaching program I participated in an intensive, five-week Teach for America Institute.

My school is also quite nontraditional—it is a public school in a high-poverty area that focuses on high student achievement and thrives on family involvement.

Facing a Challenge

One of the ways my experience is like other new teachers’, however, is the number of challenges I have faced while trying to reach a particular student. This student, Zach, is incredibly bright, but he doesn’t always know it.

Zach came into my class knowing he was very good at reading—he tests about one grade level ahead of his peers, and his comprehension of books is very deep. He loves reading challenging history books (not historical fiction, true history). Math, however, has been another story.

On one of the first days of school, the whole class took a diagnostic test. Since this test covered third-grade material (which, as third graders, they haven’t learned yet), most students did not do very well. I tried to prepare my students for this by warning them that they wouldn’t know most of the things on the test but by the end of the year they would know how to do all of it.

Zach, however, did not take this news in stride. Usually a fast and efficient worker, he was only able to complete four problems in the time the rest of his classmates completed a 75-point test.

Solving Problems Over Time

Afterward, I asked him about his performance. He said he has always been “dumb” in math, so I should just let him read all day. We discussed his career plans—to become either a professional football player or a doctor—and examined many of the ways that these careers require math. This made him realize math will be an important part of his life no matter what career he chooses.

That turned out to be the easy part. Now that he knew math would be important for him, he wanted to succeed. Unfortunately, he wanted to achieve immediately the same level of success he sees with reading. It takes time to learn a new skill, but for this third grader each missed problem was a major setback. Every time he missed a question, even if it was the first of its kind he tried, he believed it showed he was “dumb at math.”

That belief took a while to overcome—but each week I saw it diminish further. This week Zach got rid of that view for good, during a class quiz on addition and subtraction. When he realized he knew how to do all of the problems, he told me he is good at math. Seeing a student make this revelation reminded me of why I became a teacher and how many more of these life-altering moments I hope to witness in the future.

Courtney Long ([email protected]) writes from San Jose, California.