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Struggling Miss. Program Entices Liberal-Arts Graduates Into Teaching

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Earlier this year, Sonya L. Anderson, a 1992 graduate of Yale University and a native of Oxford, Miss., turned down a job offer from Teach For America, the highly publicized national organization that trains liberal-arts graduates to teach in inner-city and rural schools.

Instead of taking a TFA position teaching French at a rural Arkansas school, Ms. Anderson opted to join a similar, but smaller and less renowned organization, the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

"I figured if I was going to be in rural Arkansas, I might as well come back to rural Mississippi," says Ms. Anderson, now a social-studies and French teacher in Aberdeen, Miss., an hour-and-a-half's drive from her old hometown.

In 1989, around the same time the recent Princeton University graduate Wendy Kopp was knocking on corporate boardroom doors to raise money for Teach For America, the Mississippi higher-education department had decided to launch a nearly identical initiative on its own.

Now in its third year of operation, the Mississippi Teacher Corps recruits graduates of leading colleges and universities from around the country to spend a year teaching in the Mississippi public schools. As in Teach For America, the majority of the corps members did not major in education, and their training consists primarily of an eight-week-long summer crash course in classroom-management techniques.

This year, about 180 applicants, up from 120 the previous year, vied for the 19 positions in the corps. But, ironically, as interest in the corps is surging, the program is finding itself on a precarious financial footing. The corps, believed to be the only state-level program of its kind, almost folded last spring after budget shortfalls forced state officials to cut $30,000 from its $80,000 budget.

The program's directors obtained a $50,000 grant from the Kelley Gene Cook Sr. Charitable Foundation, enough to keep the program afloat through the end of the current school year, but its future beyond that remains uncertain.

'The Teaching Is Hard'

The Mississippi Teacher Corps is part of a larger initiative called Project '95, a statewide effort to better prepare Mississippi high school graduates for higher education and the workforce. One of the project's three objectives is to expand and improve the high school teaching force in several "critical subject areas'': foreign languages, mathematics, and the natural sciences.

Corps members pledge to teach at a Mississippi public school for at least one year, at the end of which they receive state certification. Most participants are placed in secondary schools in the rural Delta area; they are paid about $18,000 annually, a typical starting salary for first-year teachers in Mississippi.

This year's corps members range in age from 22 to 30, and include five returned Peace Corps volunteers. Many are graduates of selective universities such as Harvard, Georgetown, and Yale, and about three-quarters of them hail from outside the state.

Ms. Anderson, an economics and political-science major at Yale, says she became interested in teaching after doing volunteer work with children in New Haven, Conn., while an undergraduate. "Being from a small Southern town, it really made me alert to a lot of urban problems," she says. "The education system is sorely lacking, not just in Mississippi but all over."

Although Ms. Anderson says she enjoys her work at Aberdeen High School for the most part, she is frustrated by her students' lack of motivation. "I'm surprised at the apathy of some of these children--it's really discouraging sometimes," she laments.

"I try to instill some kind of thirst for knowledge in them," she says. "But when you try to insist that they exert some kind of effort, it's like squeezing blood from a turnip."

One of last year's corps members still teaching at his placement site is Geoffrey A. Carruthers, a 1989 graduate of Columbia University and a native of Port Washington, N.Y., a suburban town on Long Island. He decided to join because he "was interested in checking out a part of the country that I didn't really know."

"Living in a small town is such a trip," chuckles Mr. Carruthers, a 9th- and 10th-grade remedial-mathematics teacher at West Tallahatchie High School in Webb. "People talk about each other in small towns so much, there's nothing about you that's secret."

He confesses, however, that he misses many of the amenities of nonrural life. "I have to drive half an hour to a supermarket and half an hour to a movie theater, and that's usually playing 'Child's Play Part II.'"

And at times, Mr. Carruthers finds his job extremely taxing. "My students are extremely unmotivated and their skills are abysmal," he says. "They count on their fingers; I mean, they're really unskilled. It's disorganized, and unmotivated, unskilled students just make it really tough."

Despite the challenges, he still feels it has been a worthwhile experience.

"The teaching is hard," he admits, "but I think it's a hard job wherever you do it."

A prime enticement for joining the teacher corps is that it offers participants an alternative route to obtaining certification that is far quicker and less expensive than getting an advanced education degree. The only training required is an eight-week-long summer institute, held at the University of Mississippi. The classes are free, as is room and board at the university.

The institute's curriculum places the greatest emphasis on classroom-management skills, and less on pedagogical theory. Corps members say that the institute was generally effective, but add that they would have benefited from spending more time student-teaching.

In addition to the summer institute, the university also holds two follow-up workshops during the school year, and it has hired a full-time field director, Conn Thomas, a doctoral candidate at the school of education, to provide ongoing support to corps members. Throughout the year, Mr. Thomas talks with corps members over the phone and visits them at their placement sites, serving as a sympathetic ear and connecting them with needed resources.

Rate of Attrition

Of last year's 21 recruits, eight are still teaching in Mississippi public schools and one is teaching at a private school, according to Mr. Thomas, who has kept track of the 1991-92 recruits on an informal basis. Of the others, several are attending law school, and the remainder are working in other jobs outside Mississippi.

The state department of education does not keep records of the retention rate for first-year teachers, and cannot compare the corps's attrition rate with that of teachers who enter the profession through the traditional route.

While some participants view the program as the first phase of a lifelong career in teaching, many tend to view it as a way to give something back to society for a few years before they attend graduate school or move on to another profession.

"Even on the days when teaching is going well, this is not my place," observes Mr. Carruthers. "It's not something I imagined I was going to do forever. It's been interesting and all, but socially there's not enough for me to do, and some of the professional things are just too frustrating, [such as] dealing with kids who are not motivated."

A current corps member, Alexis O. Goltra, a social-studies teacher at the Weir Attendance Center, a K-12 school in Weir, expresses a similar sense of frustration. Although Mr. Goltra has found in Weir, a small town of about 500, "a genuine warmth that is really lacking up north," he says he doubts he will stay beyond his contracted year, because the cultural and social life there is "nonexistent."

Future Is Anyone's Guess

Despite the relatively small number of corps members who plan to teach in Mississippi for more than a year or two, program leaders say they are not disappointed. "Our number-one task is to bring very talented people into areas that are in need of teachers in specific areas," says Denton Gibbs, a spokesman for the teacher corps.

And within several years, predicts Andy Mullins, a spokesman for the state education department, the retention rate will increase. In the interim, he views it as a small operation that has successfully filled gaps in districts with chronic shortages, albeit on a short-term basis.

"We approach it a year at a time," he says. "We're to the point in some districts where we have to go with whatever we can get."

As one example, he cites a school district that had not had a physics teacher for three years until a corps member arrived in the fall of 1990.

Whether the program will even continue to exist next year, however, seems to be anyone's guess at this point. "It's done real well in the three years we have had it," Mr. Mullins says. "I would certainly hate to see it not funded next year. We need teachers in the Delta worse than we ever have before."

Meanwhile, many former and current corps participants are hopeful that the program will continue. One such individual is Elizabeth Rutherford, a corps member from last year who continues to teach 6th-grade social studies at Solomon Junior High School in Oxford. Although at times she wonders if she is "making a difference," she says, she has found tremendous satisfaction in her work and currently plans to study for a master's degree in teaching.

Last year, she recalls, toward the end of her first year of teaching, a student came up to her and said, "'Mrs. Rutherford, I hope my sister gets you next year.'"

"You can't get a better compliment than that," she says proudly. "It made my day."

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