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Alumnus urges Richmond students to join Teach for America

Published: November 1, 2012, 12:09 am ET
Collegian Contributor

When people ask me why I decided to become an education leader, I tell them about Jeremy.

I met Jeremy shortly after I graduated from the University of Richmond. Armed with a degree in American History, I knew only two things: that I wanted to teach and that I wanted to help fight poverty. Dr. Rick Mayes steered me toward Teach For America, and I realized I could combine my two passions by joining. In the summer of 2008, I moved to Memphis to teach Spanish at a public high school in an underserved community.

Jeremy was in my Spanish II class, and every day he would come into my classroom and eat lunch with me. He had been designated as a “special needs” student, though I soon realized that that was more of a tag than the truth. Although he was quite shy in class, he was incredibly social with me.

I noticed that Jeremy liked to draw. He always carried notebooks full of drawings and sketches, and he excelled in all the class projects we did that involved art. One day over lunch, I casually asked him, “Jeremy, how did you get to be such a good artist?”

His answer was far from what I expected.

“Mr. B, when I was in the third grade, the teacher sat me in the back of the room while the other students were working. She handed me some paper and a pencil and said, “Here. Since you can’t do the work, you might as well draw.” My fourth-grade teacher did the same thing, except she didn’t even let me participate in class. So all I was allowed to do was draw.”

At that moment, I knew exactly where my Teach For America experience was going to take me. I was going to become the leader of a school where students like Jeremy would never, ever be written off as unable to learn. I was going to take the skills I’d learned as a Teach For America corps. member — organization, professionalism, vision setting, planning and execution — and prove that all students growing up in any ZIP code can and will learn.

After the end of my two years with Teach For America, I decided that I wanted to work with younger students with hopes of reaching them earlier in their academic careers. At the time, a local charter school network called KIPP Memphis had just started making plans to expand.

Compared to everything I had known before, KIPP was a golden palace — a place where teachers, students and parents alike were committed to getting kids to attend and graduate from college. I signed on as a fifth-grade social studies teacher and began making plans to open my own KIPP middle school in Memphis.
This year, we opened KIPP Memphis Academy Middle with a founding class of 80 fifth-graders. We are creating a calm, focused and kind school, one that prepares students for all the challenges of college — not just the academic ones.

All of our students take foreign language classes to prepare them for success in a globalized world. Part of our day involves blended learning, using computers to teach basic concepts while getting students familiar with technology. And we help students develop key character strengths — including grit, kindness and curiosity — that they need to become socially intelligent eighth graders, high school students and adults.

Now that our school is open, Teach For America is still a key player in helping make it great. Two thirds of our founding staff are Teach For America corps. members or alumni, and I still get support and encouragement from all the people I met during my two years in the corps. Together, we are creating a place that is proving what’s possible for students — the kind of school that parents and students want to be a part of.

I urge you to consider applying for Teach For America. It’s the most challenging thing you’ll ever do and probably the most rewarding, as well. It can take you places you never imagined, honing crucial skills for career success while meeting a Jeremy along the way.

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