When Sarah Sentilles began teaching 1st grade in Compton, Calif., 10 years ago, she knew that working in one of the nation’s poorest and lowest-achieving school districts would be an enormous challenge. But she was confident of her ability to meet it. Ms. Sentilles was, after all, an idealistic 21-year-old graduate of Yale University who had succeeded at everything she’d ever done—one of the nation’s best and brightest.
But as she relates in Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton, she quickly came to feel like a failure. While she loved her 36 students, she realized that hard work could not compensate for her lack of experience and cultural awareness. Most troubling, she writes, was “that I was practicing how to teach on real children.”
Q: Was teaching in Compton a lot harder than you expected?
A: Absolutely. I think that [it] was something I wanted to say I had done, but not something I actually wanted to do. This was confirmed for me on the first day. Now, the Teach for America woman had told us in our five-week summer training what we should do if we didn’t have chalkboards. But I had no chalkboards, no paper, pencils, books, no playground. What was hard was the sense that I was supposed to teach with nothing—no experience, no materials.
Q: You’re quite critical of Teach for America. Why?
A: I guess I have a twofold critique. One is that most of the benefit goes to the teachers, not the students. They can parlay their experiences into better careers. Teach for America taps into the feeling of “I want to do something really good in the world, but I’m not sure what to do.” Well, the organization is well-known and has some status. I think people’s intentions are good, but after two years of teaching, you get to move on to what you really want to do. Also, there’s an enormous need for long-term, not short-term, solutions. The teacher shortage is getting worse, not better. I think there are much better models for creating teachers … with real knowledge and experience rather than landing outsiders in communities. If you take a 21-year-old and just place them there, having no awareness of their privilege, not knowing how to teach, they’re not going to do much in that community. They just don’t know what the issues are—what’s important to the parents, what the community has struggled with. And by the time they might know something, they’re burned out and depressed.
Q: What did you get out of your experience at Compton?
A: A whole new understanding of poverty as a kind of violence. The way we set up kids in poor neighborhoods to go to poor schools and do poorly in life, and the violence of that systemic, seemingly intentional policy.
I also had to face up to my own privilege. I guess I realized—and this is going to sound very basic—that I got to go to Yale not because I was smart and good but because I was born into a good family that had money. I was able to get the best education that I could buy. I saw that the system was really made for people like me. —David Ruenzel
Taught by America is published by Beacon Press (www.beacon.org; 224 pp., $23.95 hardback). The full interview appeared in the August/ September 2005 issue of Teacher Magazine.