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VOL. 133 | NO. 132 | Tuesday, July 3, 2018

‘Moved to Teach’

TFA corps members embark on careers in education

Toni Lepeska, Special to The Daily News

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Part 1 in a series on TFA’s 2018 corps

They come from New York City and from places smaller than some high schools. They come from college, and from careers. Their stories diverge, but they all are devoted to one cause. Teach For America recruits more than 100 people to Memphis each year. For six intensive weeks, they learn the TFA way to teach and to change the educational system.

A nonprofit organization, TFA’s mission is to “enlist, develop and mobilize” future leaders to work toward educational equity and excellence. They place “corps members” in low-income, usually urban, classrooms to change lives and to offer a systemic solution to a systemic problem.

The Memphis branch came to be in 2006. That year, TFA recruited 48 corps members. This summer, 150 corps members are part of the TFA’s training institute, for a total of nearly 300 now under a two-year obligation to teach.

Amid a tight field for teachers, Shelby County Schools hires from TFA, a certifying agent, as do local charter schools. Each year, SCS requires about 900 new teachers.

Breunna Lovett, a Teach For America teacher in training, talks with one of her third-grade students about a math problem. TFA teachers undergo six weeks of intensive training before filling Shelby County school slots with a two-year obligation. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

TFA identified four corps members for The Memphis Daily News to follow through their institute this summer. They underwent team-building and orientation activities their first week and then set out to experience Memphis culture and food as a group. We spoke with them during their second week of TFA classroom experience at Memphis Business Academy, a charter school.

Cultural Competency

Derek Brody describes himself as “a white man from an affluent suburb of New York City, and I’ve had tons of opportunities.”

He’ll be teaching students who didn’t have as many opportunities. He works to be intentional and to “listen more than I talk.”

His journey to understand people different from him started with a 48-hour stint in college as a homeless man in the nation’s capital. “I walked the streets and I panhandled for money,” he said. After the “Alternative Spring Break” program, he reflected on children who had gone to poor performing schools all their lives. He decided to do “something meaningful.”

Brody is teaching math as part of the TFA training and taking in Memphis at places like the Crosstown Concourse on weekends. A graduate of Vanderbilt University, he selected Memphis for its strength of community. He hopes to get into public policy eventually, but doesn’t want to “dictate from an Ivory Tower.”

According to TFA executive director Athena Palmer, though corps members may leave the classroom after their two-year commitment, they still are valuable assets to the cause. They’ve experienced the challenges of the education system first hand and may effect change elsewhere.

Eighty percent of the 2016 corps members will remain in Shelby County classrooms this year, and in keeping with historic patterns, the vast majority will remain in education.

Getting to Know Memphis

New York City native Rhina Allende never set foot in Memphis until this summer. The child of a single parent on disability, she was plucked from the inner city by a program that helped academically inclined students. She figures everyone deserves the same chances she got.

She picked Memphis as her new home because she was looking for a radically different culture. After investigating the Bluff City, she became “heart set” to help its children.

Getting around Memphis has been a problem, though. Allende does not drive. There’s no subway like New York, and the bus system wasn’t up to her expectations. To root into the community – a value of TFA, in part to promote retention of teachers – Allende is “hopping onto the band wagon. ‘Hey, can I go with you?’” she asks fellow corps members.

Her greatest classroom challenge has been maintaining student attention in 90-minute segments. “I think breaks work really well, like jumping jacks,” she said.

Does she miss home? “I’ve been going back and forth about being homesick. I believe I’m in the right place physically,” she said. “I just miss the people.”

A graduate of College of Saint Rose, Allende’s got a job waiting for her, as all four of these corps members do. She will teach 10th grade at KIPP Collegiate High School.

College and Career Pipeline

Tra Taylor didn’t take the usual route to TFA. At 25, he’s older than the featured corps members, all age 22. In fact, about 60 percent of TFA’s corps members arrive directly from college.

A Jamestown, Kentucky, native, Taylor had a career. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the memory of “amazing teachers … who pushed me to do more,” the marketing graduate from the University of Louisville quit his sales job.

In response to recruitment challenges, Shelby County Schools is recruiting people who hold non-education degrees. They must meet some front-end requirements and eventually obtain a license. In fact, only about 10 percent of TFA’s corps members come from an educational background.

In his first classroom experience, Taylor is practicing being concise and direct. “That’s my biggest challenge,” he said, “that I’m saying things they can understand.”

His adjustment to Memphis has been about finding “authentic experiences.” A food lover, he hadn’t tasted the barbecue yet, but he’s been to the new Hattie B’s on Cooper Avenue.

Bringing It Back Home

Breunna Lovett is already rooted in Memphis – in Orange Mound, specifically – and she’s delighted to be back.

She was away at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with every intention of being a lawyer. Then her favorite firm didn’t hire her, so she signed on to the Memphis Teacher Residency training program. MTR also feeds teachers into SCS.

That first taste of classroom experience hooked Lovett.

“My students loved me and respected me,” she said. “That was powerful. I could have done anything, but I was moved to teach.”

Due to extra commitment and restrictions at MTR, Lovett signed on to the TFA program. She’s already discovered that she had more to learn.

“What’s going to stick with me is the patience and care we need to use with each and every student,” she said. “I may be the only one to love them.”

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