Education Opinion

impact of one and many

By Jessica Shyu — February 12, 2008 3 min read
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It is OK to leave the classroom. What is not OK, Dr. Philip Uri Treisman said, is if people are surprised you once were a teacher.

Treisman, a renowned University of Texas math professor and leader of education equity, reminded and assured his audience of current and former teachers from their mid-20s to early-30s that our passion to close the achievement gap must course through us regardless of what we may choose to do.

Because that’s the reality, right? There are fewer “lifers” out there in any profession these days. Ten-year teaching veterans may decide to go into policy. Mid-career accountants may turn to teaching. I used to feel a bit apprehensive when people would teach for two or three years and move on to the private sector (even though I left the classroom myself!). But after returning from the Texas Teach For America alumni summit this weekend, I really think that there are few things as inspiring as hundreds of energetic people-- teachers, doctors, lawyers, policy makers, stay-at-home parents-- who are dedicated to improving the state of education in this country and are doing what they can in their power to make sure it happens.

But after leaving all pumped up and inspired by this summit, I came back to our mundane life in the Rio Grande Valley and was reminded that the inspiration starts here. One of the first-year teachers I work with, Sarah Saxton-Frump, wrote an opinion article for her alma mater, describing what her ninth graders have learned, what she has been taught, and what she will take with her one day if she moves on.

"[At the start of the school year,] I graded their diagnostic exams - basic tests to check for map skills and knowledge they should have acquired over eight years of schooling. In the middle of grading my third period, I threw down my grading marker. My students couldn’t read a basic thematic map. Many couldn’t tell me where Europe was; others couldn’t even tell me which way north was. In three years, these students would be taking the SAT, applying to college, and stepping into a world that does not dole out second chances at summer school. Horrified, I stopped grading and started planning.

I taught my students population density by cramming them into 16 square feet after “zombies” invaded my classroom and built “Student-Death Zones.” We went on EuroTrip 2008, ordered afternoon tea at the Ritz, and “walked” around Auschwitz. We debated the Kyoto Protocol. We brought turkeys and potatoes from Latin America to Europe to illustrate diffusion.

On their midterm exam, 73 percent of my students scored an 80 percent or higher. I am extraordinarily proud of the progress my students have made in one semester. There are still 41 students who need a tremendous amount of help to reach our big goal, but they are committed to it, and so am I.

The dedication and patience required to teach in a low-income, at-risk school are qualities I was not sure I possessed at the end of my senior year. As I thought about “life after Brown,” I had about 15 plans. Teach For America was maybe third in line, but I am grateful it’s the path I took, in spite of all the horror stories and criticisms I heard before joining. Yes, many of the criticisms were true. As a new TFA hire, I had never taught a class before. I had trained for only six hellish weeks. Even now I stick out like a sore, white thumb at my 98 percent Hispanic high school. I question my ability to impact our crumbling public education system in only two years.

I’ve realized, though, that no single teacher can have that impact-not on the whole system. But every day, I can show up and stand in front of 150 students and teach. Every day, I can change my students’ lives. The nation’s children need tenacious leaders who perpetually ask, “How can I teach better? How can I reach my students today?” I know that there are 13-million children growing up in poverty in the United States, and that until more schools ask these questions, that number will not improve.

In years to come, I can have an impact on the system as a whole. I can carry my front-line expertise and values of hard work, effectiveness, and faith in my students out of the classroom and into principals’ offices, onto school boards, and into Congress. Right now, though, my movement to change our education system started Aug. 27 with 150 students in the biggest school in the poorest city in the country.”

Sarah may not remain a teacher. She may not remain in Brownsville. What I am confident about, however, is that she will take her passion to close the achievement gap anywhere she goes, and I am certain that no one on the Hill or in first period will doubt she ever taught 9th grade.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.