Two Teach For America Recruits Share Their Stories

Two Teach for America members confront the challenges of life in a Los Angeles high school.

Phillip Gedeon at Locke High School, where he worked for Teach for America.

Phillip Gedeon at Locke High School, where he worked for Teach for America.

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Other things bugged him, too. Like the fact that there was a deaf boy in Rachelle Snyder's class who had no aide to sign for him, and the fact that some kids assigned to honors English couldn't really read, and the fact that faculty meetings were like grade-school food fights, and the phones didn't work, and access to copy paper was based on politics—if you were one of the anointed, you got paper; if you were not, you had to beg, borrow, or steal. The heady days when he first arrived in Los Angeles seemed like a mirage. Teaching at a place like Locke was a grind, an uphill climb with no summit in sight. And the kids! They came to school with so much baggage, baggage that no first-year teacher could possibly help carry.

His most recent heartbreak was Darius. Darius had been absent from school for three or four weeks, and when he finally returned, Phillip asked him where he had been.

"I was at home," Darius explained. "I got into this fight with this kid and he lost, so he came to my house several times with guns."

"What else?" prompted Phillip.

"He's been threatening to kill me and my family, so my mom wouldn't let me go out. We got a TRO [temporary restraining order]. Then she thought I should go back to school."

"How is this going to come to a closing, a resolution?" asked Phillip.

"One of us is gonna have to shoot the other," came his simple reply.

Everyone else in the class just sat there. There was no outrage, no shock, no embarrassment. It was business as usual. Phillip didn't know what to do with what he had just learned. Who do I go to? He already has a TRO. Do I send work home? Who would pick it up? What should I do?

Phillip had much in common with his students; he, too, was raised in a low-income community by a single mother. But he had never lived in a neighborhood like this. He had never experienced the kind of pressure or fear that Darius knew. He could sympathize, he could imagine, but he could never feel what Darius was feeling. The only answer for Darius's situation, he decided, was to make the time that he had with him meaningful, to make the moments in Mr. Gedeon's class the best moments of Darius's day.

The first inkling that teaching at Locke was going to be tougher than he thought came when Phillip got the results of the first benchmark assessments, monthly tests teachers were required to give to track achievement. Ninety-five percent of his students had failed. At the math department meeting afterward, Phillip realized that the other teachers had equally disappointing results; the kids had all bombed.

When Phillip handed out the scores to his students, they were surprised. He had given them the grades they deserved; they were used to getting the grades they needed. Am I being too hard? Are the questions too difficult? No, he decided. The questions had come directly from the work he had been presenting in class. Then why are my students failing?

Phillip was not in the habit of blaming himself. He decided that the problem was homework. His kids didn't do it. That was going to change.

First he decided to cut the number of nightly homework problems from an overwhelming 20 to a more manageable handful. Then he decided that the kids themselves would correct the homework in class, instead of handing it in to him for marking. That way there would be immediate feedback—kids wouldn't have to wait weeks to get their work back, if Phillip even got around to grading it. They would see that there was a meaningful relationship between the nightly homework and the weekly test results. The pace of the class would change, too. The lessons would be slower, more deliberate. Finally, failure to do homework would have consequences: a dreaded Saturday-school detention.

While Phillip worried that all his kids were failing, one of Hrag Hamalian's biggest problems was that too many of his students were passing. He didn't know how to grade. There was no schoolwide policy, so he just did what almost everyone else in the biology department did. The bottom line was, if you came to Mr. H's class and did the lab work, you passed. Hrag gave out homework maybe once a week—any more often, he figured, and they wouldn't do it. The tests he gave counted for only 15 percent of the final grade, though the kids didn't know that. Surprisingly, the results on the first couple of quizzes were outstanding—the average was 80 percent, and the tests were real biology! Since then, though, the scores had dipped into the 60s. He wasn't sure what to make of the drop. But he had so little time to think about what he was teaching and how he was doing that he was hard-pressed to make any adjustments.