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VOL. 133 | NO. 143 | Thursday, July 19, 2018

Teach For America Corps Members Adjust to New Careers and Community

Toni Lepeska, Special to The Daily News

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A New Jersey native who came to Memphis to be a part of an educational movement, Derek Brody struggled with getting to all the material planned for his elementary school students.

He didn’t flounder for long. Sitting in the back of his first classroom, a coach had an answer.

In fact, as corps members at Teach For America, Brody and other up-and-coming teachers will draw on the knowledge and skill of coaches throughout their two-year commitment to Memphis.

Tra Taylor, a second-grade teacher in TFA’s teacher training course, reads a short story to his students. TFA teachers undergo six weeks of intensive training before filling Shelby County school slots with a two-year obligation. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Brody, 22, who completed his summer training last week, called the coaching “really, really helpful” and attributed the ease of navigating his transition on the strength of community within the program. He said, “Not all organizations are like that.”

Brody is one of four TFA corps members The Memphis Daily News is following through the institute and into their first full-time teaching jobs. Many, like Brody, come from other cities and regions. Their task isn’t only adjustment to a career but also to a culture.

TFA emphasizes that corps members become “rooted” in the community, in part to foster retention of teachers beyond their two-year obligation. Each year, TFA recruits new teachers that are funneled into the Shelby County Schools system and into other low-income, usually urban, area schools. TFA hopes to change lives and the educational system by mobilizing future leaders inside classrooms and elsewhere for educational equity and excellence.

This summer, 150 corps members have been a part of TFA’s intensive, six-week training institute, which includes teaching in small classrooms at Memphis Business Academy charter school. We spoke with them, and two of the coaches, on their last week of training.

“Most corps members come without classroom experience,” said Addison Combs, a former corps member who is coaching 21 people including Brody. “It takes them time to get used to planning and filling the time. I work a lot with them on pacing their lessons.”

Breunna Lovett, who grew up in Orange Mound, worked with a different coach, Courtney Thornton, but also found pacing as an unwieldy task. Thornton suggested she break down the time to spend on various parts of lessons by minutes on the clock.

“That didn’t work for me at all,” Lovett said. “And then she said, ‘Why don’t you write in on the board?’ ”

It became almost a game for Lovett’s students, who worked hard to meet the time constraints and pointed out when it was time to move on to other material. “That was really great,” she said.

Coaches come to know their corps members beyond the environment of a classroom.

“Breunna,” said Thornton, “is an excellent resource because she’s a Memphian. She’s even helped some of them with housing. She’s like ‘the plug.’ That’s what they call her.”

Lovett and her family in Orange Mound hosted an Independence Day party for the entire corps. They lounged by the pool, and some took in Downtown fireworks.

New York City native Rhina Allende, who has secured a Midtown apartment, is getting around the city more on her own. Having always used a subway or a bus, she didn’t know how to drive. She recently got on a bicycle. And she got a driver’s manual to study. With training ahead at her destination school, she will be staying in Memphis without returning to the Big Apple for a visit.

Tra Taylor, however, will be headed to Jamestown, Kentucky to “recharge, regroup.” And to get belongings he left behind before classes begin at Aspire Hanley Middle School.

Back in Greater Memphis, he’s discovered Shelby Farms.

“It’s just gorgeous,” said the 25-year-old. “A good place to decompress.”

Taylor may need to visit Shelby Farms often as he walks into his first permanent assignment next month.

ChaKia Parham, senior managing director of the institute, said every new teacher will say they feel overwhelmed. They’ve got lots of decisions to make. Coaches will be in corps members’ classrooms every other week, guiding them through their choices and experiences.

“We’ve taught them the skills they’ll need,” Parham said. “They’ll need the confidence to act on those skills.”

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