Teaching For America: The First Day

Published October 20, 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 year a TFA teacher will take SRN readers through her experiences in the classroom.

“Ms. Long’s third-grade class may line up right here.”

Seeing 20 third-graders walk toward me filled me with both fear and excitement. This was my first day as a teacher, and I had been nervous for weeks. I was not used to being called Ms. Long, and had to remind myself not to introduce myself as Courtney. I was not used to being watched by 20 pairs of eyes. And I definitely was not used to waking up at 5:20 a.m. Just like my new students, I was finding I would have a lot to learn.

I came to this teaching position in San Jose through Teach for America, the organization that recruits high-achieving recent college graduates to teach for two years in traditionally underserved areas. Many, if not most, of TFA’s corps members did not major in education—including me, an economics and history major at Yale University. Instead of teaching, I’d always assumed I would go into business or public policy. But the long hours of investment banking—not to mention the current state of the economy—made business seem a less attractive option. Starting a career in public policy also worried me, because I had no real knowledge of any of the subjects I could be writing reports about.

Sudden Decision

While facing writers’ block on my senior thesis, I decided almost on a whim to apply to Teach for America. Education policy and school choice had always interested me, and this struck me as a good way to learn more about education. After submitting my application, I went through two more rounds of interviews before being accepted in the 2009 teaching corps.

Soon after accepting my position at the end of April, I received a big box containing all of my written coursework, which had to be completed by the first of June for the start of TFA’s Institute—the infamously rigorous five-week training program that helps prepare corps members for the challenges of being in the classroom. During these five weeks, my coach (or “corps member advisor” in TFA-speak) critiqued my lesson plans, gave me suggestions on how to improve my classroom management, and provided hints on how to inspire my students to invest more in their own learning.

Innovative Training, Innovative School

After this innovative form of teacher training, I started teaching at an incredibly innovative school at the end of August. Though it’s a public school, it doesn’t fit the regular public school mold. It was founded six years ago by a group of parents who did not think the available public school options offered their children the best chance of getting a good education. They successfully appealed to the school district, arguing for the creation of smaller, more autonomous schools. The result was the school where I now teach, along with two other small schools.

Learning Curve

My school, which averages just two classes per grade level, focuses on high achievement. Students are required to complete a long homework packet each week, read for at least 30 minutes each night, and attend school for an extra hour every day. Parents must volunteer for at least 30 hours over the course of the school year, attend mandatory meetings, and be incredibly invested in their child’s education. It’s precisely because of these requirements that my school has incredibly high test scores and is ranked one of the top elementary schools in California serving a low-income community. It also ranks fairly high statewide among schools with much wealthier students.

As I write this, still early in the semester, I look forward to seeing how the year progresses. I know my students are capable of making huge academic gains and are eager to do so, and I am optimistic about my abilities to lead them to these goals with hard work, dedication, and lots of planning. I’ve already learned a lot. I now answer to Ms. Long (and very rarely do I find myself introducing myself as Courtney). I’m getting used to having every one of my actions scrutinized by 20 students (though I don’t think I will ever get used to generating so much interest just by opening a can of pop). I’ve even gotten used to waking up at 5:20 a.m. And I am sure these basic skills will help me greatly in my first year of what could be the greatest adventure of my life—teaching for America.

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