A letter from one of our recent graduates talking about their experiences in the Teach For America training
Hello from Los Angeles! As you might know, I recently arrived here in California to begin my five-week training for Teach For America. I told many of you that I would try to send periodic updates throughout my next two years as a teacher, and this is the first of what I hope will be a series of "mini-States of the Union." If you would rather not receive these updates, please email me and I'll take you off of the list.
It's been an arduous (and exciting!) week here in LA, one that vaguely resembles the first week of college. We're living in dorms here at Cal State-Long Beach, and the last five days have been full of the attendant rush of adrenaline (and occasional awkwardness) as people rush to meet one another and struggle to remember names and hometowns.
Much has been made about the Teach For America recruitment process - I've often heard it called "painstaking, exclusive, and elitist" all in the same breath - but it's become increasingly clear to me that there was a methodology to the madness. The future teachers here are, on the whole, ambitious, aggressive, and impressively credentialed. It is both invigorating and intimidating to be one among a group of such driven leaders.
We've spent the last four days at our school sites preparing to teach summer school for the next four weeks. It's difficult to describe how quickly the enormity of the task overwhelmed me. The school at which I will be teaching this summer is in the heart of Watts, a neighborhood for which I had only the vaguest recollection about its notorious past and seemingly hopeless future.
To descend into the neighborhood from the highway is to feel the desolation of this dilapidated, trash-strewn corner of LA. Bright-faced children wave at our bus as we pass, while melancholy men stare indifferently from street corners as our driver eyes them cautiously. This does not feel like the America I know. The houses lean mournfully to one side. Transients rest in the doorways, bottles carelessly thrown at their feet. Women with furrowed brows pace the streets barefoot.
And then there are the gates. Everything is gated. The houses are surrounded by gates. The parks are surrounded by gates. The stores are surrounded by gates. Everywhere, one is reminded that the neighborhood's inhabitants regard one another with weary hostility. And as we drive to school every morning, I find myself wondering what the gates mean to a child. Security? Confinement? Remembering my own childhood, with its tree-lined boulevards and sprawling parks, I wonder what it would mean to grow up surrounded by gates. To be treated as an animal.
David Starr Jordan High School, where I will be teaching for the next four weeks, is adjacent to the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, a foreboding area made famous when the film "Training Day" was shot there. The school looks worn, with chipped paint, dark halls, and the sense that it could never really look clean. When we were greeted by the principal, a towering, soulful man, he apologized for his somber demeanor - one of his teachers had been killed earlier this week. He proffered no explanation, and we did not press him for details.
Classes start in three days. We've been training now for only four. We've covered a host of contingency plans. Plans for classroom management, for asserting authority, and for rules and procedures. It seems that we are (appropriately?) worried that behavioral problems will quickly overtake our grandly idealistic lesson plans. I don't like to assume anything, but horror stories from other corps members have a way of zipping from one team to another with remarkable speed (and magnification). As our training week nears its end, the tension is palpable, and I find myself doubting my abilities with increasing frequency.
The next week promises to be a challenging one. We'll be meeting our students, setting our month-long goals, and working to help them succeed. Or such is the idealistic mantra of Teach For America. We shall see, very soon, just how idealistic TFA really is.