Each year, around 20,000 of the nation's most promising college graduates enter a highly selective process to compete for the chance to work in some of the country's most troubled environments, earning public servant-level salaries. Since its creation in 1990, the nonprofit Teach for America has assumed the allure of the Rhodes Scholarship program, in essence becoming the postgraduate program of choice for the elite of America's top universities.
Perhaps that cachet in part explains the culture shock that TFA's chosen few face when they begin their two-year teaching commitment working in overburdened, low-income public schools. Even though TFA preps its corps members with a rigorous five-week training program before they start teaching, graduate classes to earn their certification along the way, and ongoing support from the organization's staff, there truly is no way to ready these young teachers for the hurdles they will face in the classroom.
In Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America, journalist Donna Foote follows four TFA corps members through their first year teaching in Locke High School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District and located in the historically troubled Watts neighborhood. The following excerpt catches up with two of those teachers—Phillip Gedeon and Hrag Hamalian—in November of their first semester, when they've already had ample experience with the promise and challenges of life in an urban public school.
It's like a prison. Even the teachers are locked in. No wonder the kids act this way. Phillip Gedeon was in a bad mood as the police officer slid the gate open just wide enough for him to exit the football field, then promptly locked it shut again. He was sick of all the gates and the locks. What good did they do, anyway? Weapons still made their way onto campus, property still managed to go missing, kids still ditched classes. He was tired of being locked in, locked down, locked out.
He should have felt great. It was homecoming weekend, the sun was shining on this first Saturday in November, and the Locke Saints were winning the game against rival Fremont High. The stands weren't full, but the 300 or so people who had paid the $7 admission fee and submitted to a scan by a wand-waving cop were having fun.
The fans were mostly African-American. Sports at Locke tended to divide strictly along racial lines. Blacks played football; Hispanics played soccer. Because of security issues, it wasn't often that the blue-and-gold Saints team played at home. Homecoming was special.
He felt burned out. But he wasn't the only one. Just walking down the halls each day, he could see people dragging. It was only November, and already a lot of the teachers were saying this would be their last year at Locke. Not Phillip. He had a plan from which he would not deviate. He would stay at Locke for four years, and during that time he would get his master's in administration from Loyola Marymount University. He didn't want to be a principal, but it made sense to get certified for administration. From there, he would most probably move to another school, where he would work while earning his doctorate. He knew that eventually he would leave the classroom, and just the thought of that day's arrival made him sad. He loved teaching. Still, working at Locke was so taxing. The system is failing, and it's making me fail.
Classes were too big and the school too dysfunctional for one teacher to effect real change in student achievement. Ten-week grades were due, and Phillip still didn't know exactly how many students he had. In his seventh-period class, only half of the 36 students enrolled ever showed up. In his fourth-period class, there were 45 names on his roster in a room that had only 41 desks. Most of the time it wasn't a problem—there were always at least five students absent; some of them he had never even seen. But it was annoying. Each day, one particularly good-natured student would come in, sit at the front table, and wait to see which desk would be empty. Then, satisfied that the real owner was a no-show, the student would take a seat and get to work. Phillip could have requested more desks, but that would have sent the wrong message to the administration. That would be saying that he was ok with an oversize class, and he was not ok with that at all. The way to raise student achievement was to lower class size, not to pack the kids in like sardines and assume there'd always be enough room because attendance was so poor.