When Sarah Sentilles began teaching 1st grade in Compton, California, 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. 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 (Beacon), Sentilles 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.”
Reached by phone at her apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts—she’s now a doctoral student in theology at Harvard University—Sentilles talked about the inadequacies of the Teach for America program (which sends new college graduates like her to impoverished schools), the transformative power of her experience, and a return visit to Compton last year.
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: Why is Teach for America so successful in recruiting new teachers?
A: It uses the seductive teacher-as-hero model. On its Web site is a section called “what it takes,” promoting a very individualistic model of the superteacher. The message is, “If you work harder, you’ll get your kids on a different track in life.” That’s very dangerous because it suggests that if the teachers already there would just work harder, there wouldn’t be this achievement gap.
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.
Q: The other teachers weren’t very collegial with you. Why?
A: If I was a veteran teacher in Compton and kept seeing a slew of white women coming in to teach,...I don’t think I would have been that collegial, either. In my first school, I had some teachers I really liked who were very helpful, but then I was recruited to another Compton school with more problems, a bigger teacher shortage. I looked like another rookie Teach for America teacher—one of eight to 10 white women. Basically, if there’s a white teacher in Compton, they’re in Teach for America. So the relationships are strained. They see you as an outsider who doesn’t know the community and what it takes to become a good teacher.
Q: When did you realize you couldn’t stay in Compton?
A: When I went blind in the classroom and couldn’t see. I was teaching a math lesson, bending down to work with students, and I started to have blackouts in my eyes—I couldn’t see anything. I told the students to see if there was anyone in the yard who could come and get me. A boy stayed with me and held my hand and said not to worry, that help would be on the way. I was eventually taken to the emergency room, where the doctor said that it was either nothing or a brain tumor. Happily, I discovered that it was just a migraine—my migraines started there in Compton. But in that moment, when this wonderful boy was taking care of me and my body was breaking down, I realized that this was not sustainable.
Q: Tell me about your return visit to Compton last year.
A: I was trying to track down kids I had taught, which was like trying to track down ghosts. Parents and guardians move a lot, and the children often have different last names. I eventually tracked down three students. One didn’t remember me at all, one who did didn’t seem to be doing well. He was asleep in class when I arrived, and the teacher was having him do a word search on airplanes in English class, which had nothing to do with what he was learning. He said he was really bored in school. He really didn’t open up to me. I also felt that things pretty much looked the same in Compton. There was some construction, which was hopeful, and some grass, but as a whole everything was the same. I found it disheartening.
Q: Did it bother you when the one child couldn’t remember you?
A: No, it put myself in perspective. To me, my experience was a big deal, but to the child it was just 1st grade.