My Experience with Teach for America
I am currently working at Southside Middle School in Florence, South Carolina, about five minutes away from where I live. This is a big change from the last two years, when I lived on a dirt road in the country and worked in Lake City, South Carolina, which is a rural, high-poverty area. I was placed in South Carolina through the Teach for America program (TFA).
People often ask me about Teach for America and since my participation in the program has had such a significant impact on my professional career, I’d like to say a few words about my own experience.
I applied for the TFA program in November of my senior year at Niagara University. Once my application was accepted, I interviewed with a staff member over the phone. In late January, I found out that I had passed this first stage, so I drove to the University of Rochester for a day-long interview. Here, I taught a five-minute mock lesson to a group of 14 other applicants, participated in a roundtable discussion, and had a personal one-on-one interview. The process lasted from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. In early March, I received an email that notified me that I was one of 4,000 out of 50,000 total applicants to be offered a position with TFA – Niagara had prepared me well for this challenge! I had just two weeks to decide if I wanted to accept the offer.
Once I accepted, I interviewed via Skype with different districts. Of all the districts that thought I would be a good fit at their schools, TFA had the ultimate decision where to place me; it could be in any of these districts.
I departed for Cleveland, Mississippi on June 3 before moving to South Carolina. TFA has an institute in Mississippi that provides teacher training, as most TFA members are not education majors in college. To prepare us for our positions, new TFA teachers taught in groups during a six-week summer school program at a high-risk school. Upon completion of our training, we were sent to our communities to begin planning and preparing for the upcoming school year.
TFA requires a two-year commitment and I received $11,000 to use toward past loans or future educational experiences, on top of a regular teaching salary. For two years, I taught resource at Ronald E. McNair Middle School. I loved the experience, and my students, but the resource setting is not my true passion.
After my two-year commitment was over, I interviewed with Southside Middle School. After 30 years, the school had a position available in the Orthopedic Disabilities classroom, which is where I am currently employed! I have five students, four of which have cerebral palsy. It is a totally different setting and I absolutely love it!
Rewards and Challenges of Teaching
My students are all unique. I have two students who are non-verbal, but say a ton! I have three students who are in wheelchairs and two students who are ambulatory. My students bring joy and life to the classroom and to the whole school. I love being able to bring out the best in them as they bring out the best in me. Prior to this year, unfortunately, my room was not as active. So far this year, some of the students are attending mainstream classes and are increasing grade levels in reading and math. I love being able to work with them to show others that there is nothing one cannot do if he or she is willing to try.
My biggest challenges as a teacher come from working in underfunded schools. Unlike New York state schools, schools in South Carolina often lack the proper infrastructure (for example, the doors at my school are not handicapped accessible), resources and materials in order to work most effectively and efficiently. It is difficult to overcome issues like the need for doors that students can open themselves, but we make small strides every day. To overcome this particular issue, we’ve used student buddies who can travel with my kids and help them move about the school.
It can also be a challenge to change the mindset of the students (and teachers) in the building about the capabilities of my students. We try to make ourselves known in the school community and I encourage my students to take “leaps of faith” and try new things each day. One major success occurred this year when I asked for seven iPads for my classroom and the district bought them for us! While our resources are often limited, my district found that such a purchase would truly enhance the students’ educational experience. My students are able to do extraordinary things with the ability to “touch” their way through learning.
Reflections on My Preparation at NU
I received my undergraduate degree in special education (grades 7-12) and English in May 2013, so this is my third year teaching! Niagara was a great place to begin my teacher education and the program offered many resources to help students become professional educators. Perhaps my best resource, however, was my professors. I consulted with them when I was considering applying for Teach for America, and when considering moving out of state to find a job. My advisor, Dr. Rinaldo, and I conversed about job opportunities and I decided that relocating would be a great way to build and diversify my resume. I encourage others to do so as well! It is such a unique experience.
Niagara prepared me from day one for this experience. Unlike most other universities, Niagara places students in the classroom right from the first semester. The Learn and Serve program allowed me to observe many different teachers in various settings. It also helped me to become comfortable with the ins and outs of teaching, and I was even able to teach a bit during these first observation placements! Moving forward, I completed two semesters as a teaching assistant, which, again, provided me with additional observation experiences and allowed me to begin teaching lessons. Finally, two different student teaching placements equipped me with the hands-on experience that simulated a real teaching career. I felt as prepared as I could possibly be after leaving NU.
For current education students at NU, my advice is this: be open-minded about moving to a new place and trying something you never thought you could do. It is amazing what this career path can do for you; stick with it!