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.
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.
His life had gone from carefree to crazed in a matter of months. During his senior year at [Boston College], Hrag had been able to kick back some. After a Thursday night of partying, he'd wake up at 2 p.m. on Friday, go to his one scheduled class, and then rev up for the weekend's festivities. Now he was rising before dawn and working late into the night. He was getting five hours of sleep—if he slept at all. On top of that, for the first time in his life, he had to cook and clean for himself. He felt like he was 60 years old. When he woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror, he thought, I am my dad.
In addition to teaching five periods of biology every day, he was attending night school from 4 to 10 two evenings a week. All recruits had to be enrolled in a credentialing program as a term of their employment by LAUSD. It helped meet No Child Left Behind requirements, and it helped blunt charges that TFA teachers were ill-prepared. But grad school was a joke, every TFA-er agreed. Loyola Marymount University had designed a special curriculum for busy recruits, which got them a credential and a master's in two years—for $4,000. But the TFA-ers went to class after a long day of work, and most zoned out instead of tuning in. While the professors lectured, they were on their laptops, multitasking. They'd be catching up on E-mail, entering grades, and preparing lessons. Most found that very little of what LMU offered was applicable to life in the classroom. So they saw grad school as just another drain on their time and energy, and put it at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hrag had heard that the feeling was mutual. A lot of professors at LMU refused to teach TFA-ers. They thought they were obnoxious.
What Hrag hadn't realized before he started was that teaching was not a regular job. It enveloped his whole life. It was the first thing he thought of when he woke up, and it was on his mind on the weekends when he walked down to the beach to try to relax. He wasn't just a teacher—he was a referee, a counselor, a doctor—80 things bundled into one. And that made him even more nervous. He had this thing in his stomach, this growing tightness. He told himself it was just the stress of the first couple of months, but he wasn't so sure. He read somewhere that after cops, teachers drank the most alcohol. He believed it; the job could drive anyone to drink.
After two years at Locke, he thought, he was going to be scarred. He was scarred already. He knew he would never forget the drunks on street corners he saw at 6 a.m. on the way to work, or tough little José and troubled Cale. He would always remember the kid who sat there shivering and licking his lips throughout class—Is he on drugs or just hungry? And the gangbangers and the kids who looked like they'd been beaten. And the boy he often drove home from school because he lived so far away. He felt, too, for the kids who came to class every day to "get their learning on" against all odds. Yes, Teach for America was life changing.
He might not end up being an educator—at this point, there was no way—but down the line, years from now, he knew he would care about the achievement gap when 95 percent of the world did not.
Hrag's old college buddies noticed the changes in him. He set aside several hours every Saturday morning for E-mails and phone calls, desperately wanting to stay connected. They all took note of his newfound maturity—and the fact that he had stopped cracking all those corny jokes for which he was famous. They also said they respected what he was doing and admired him. That felt good. The glory was there—at 21, Hrag was a teacher in a position of power. By contrast, his friends' lives seemed mundane—they sat at desks, crunched numbers, drove home, watched TV, and went to sleep. Being a TFA teacher was by far the hardest thing he had ever done, but he'd pick this pressure-cooker life of his over anyone else's any day.
When the Hamalian family first immigrated to the United States, they lived for a short time in Huntington Beach, Calif. Hrag's father, Manuel, worked repairing industrial parts for a mobile franchise company. Few men would take jobs in the inner-city neighborhoods; it was considered too dangerous. But Manuel took whatever business came his way. He ended up working in Watts nearly every day, and he made lots of friends there. Now things had come full circle. His son's first real job in America was in Watts, too. Neither of them had known what he was in for.
Sometimes Hrag assumed that because his kids had been cheated all their lives, they couldn't follow directions or weren't capable of grasping what he was trying to teach. After talking to his own father—who had helped him when he struggled in high school—Hrag changed his mind: No. They are 14. They could give a crap.
But there was a big difference. Most of these kids didn't have parents like his, holding their feet to the fire, checking on homework, helping them study.
Hrag realized he had it a lot easier than most of the other TFA-ers. He, at least, had Vanessa Morris, head of the science department. Morris had taken Hrag and the other new biology teacher, Jinsue Choi, under her wing. Her style of teaching biology was inquiry based. Because her students' literacy skills were so low, Morris rarely referred to the textbook; instead, she used hands-on labs to lead her kids to discovery. She had been at Locke for five years, and she coaxed pretty darn good results from her students. Seeing her teach was like watching a master magician. She glided from task to task with ease, handling behavioral issues with equanimity and presenting new scientific concepts with childlike delight. The period sped by, and inevitably, by its conclusion, Morris had worked her magic—the kids had been tricked into learning.
Hrag's collaboration with the two teachers felt good, and the kids seemed to be learning. Hrag's loyalty to Morris—and to Jinsue—was unshakable. Every time he contemplated quitting, he thought of how he would be letting Morris down, and leaving became unthinkable.
Hrag bitched, but he was really enjoying the kids, and he sensed that the kids were enjoying him, too. He joked around a lot. It kept his students engaged—and kept him from dying of boredom. Every time he got strict and serious, he could tell the kids were tuning him out. Most periods—with the exception of the incorrigible fifth—took his angry outbursts to heart. When he raised his voice in disapproval, the rowdy kids would turn into docile children, frown, and put their heads down. "Let's start over," he'd suggest. "I got off on a bad note, and so did you." They would come around, but it would take a few minutes. They became upset, too, if he was absent. They worried that he was quitting, that he wouldn't come back.
They really did seem to be learning, probably more than he had in high school. Hrag had learned how to take notes in high school, and that no doubt prepared him for college. But he didn't end up knowing anything about biology, and he thought that his students did. So, on the rare occasion that he allowed himself to think about it, he decided that what he was doing was a good thing, that he was doing a good job, a job he could be proud of, and that it was something that he would look back on as a moment in his life in which he had shined. Then, quickly, he'd go back to worrying. I feel like a commando. I go into the jungle, but the jungle keeps changing. I don't know who I'm fighting.
Excerpted from Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America by Donna Foote. Copyright © 2008 by Donna Foote. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.