U graduates ‘Teach for America’

The program provides poor urban and rural students with a better education.

Jens Krogstad

University law student Amanda Beaumont said her first year of teaching eighth grade in inner-city Chicago, Ill., was the worst year of her life.

But looking back, she said she would not trade her experience as a Teach for America corps member for anything.

“Teaching is much more fun than law school,” she said.

Current and former University students who put their lives on hold for two years to teach disadvantaged students said the experience is challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

The goal of Teach for America is to provide children with an excellent education, regardless of the child’s social and economic status, said senior Jack Carey, the program’s University campus coordinator.

The program will accept about 3,300 people out of more than 16,000 applicants this year to teach disadvantaged students in rural and urban areas throughout the country. Most of the applicants are recent college graduates.

Low-income students consistently lag behind higher-income students in reading and math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The gap between basic skills test scores for blacks and whites in Minnesota is the largest in the country, according to a study released in August by the Center on Educational Policy.

Beaumont said she witnessed educational inequality first-hand in her two years in Chicago.

She said students often came to class angry about their lives. Some of their problems included school bullies, homelessness, drugs and police brutality – which Beaumont said probably contributed to their distrust of authority figures.

Realizing that the children she taught were dealing with these issues caused her to resent the state’s standardized testing. She said she saw deserving students who performed well all year held back because they tested poorly.

“From a teacher’s perspective it was frustrating because everything was based on three days of testing,” she said. “There can be a lot of issues affecting a kid on the day of a standardized test.”

Not everyone’s experience is as trying as Beaumont’s.

Christopher Ruszkowksi, who graduated in 2003, is in his first year teaching at a middle school in North Miami Beach, Fla. His school is about 85 percent Haitian-American and 15 percent Hispanic.

Ruszkowksi said standardized testing is a problem in his school, but said that as a social studies teacher he is not forced to deviate from his lesson plan often because of tests.

He said the main challenge for him is the language barrier because many students do not speak English well and many are not familiar with American culture.

“Most of my students had rarely discussed American social and political issues in their lives,” he said.

Consequently, he started from scratch on weighty issues such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and the right to bear arms.

But Ruszkowksi said he is having a great experience.

“My students have amazing potential, and every day I find ways to bring that out,” he said.

Beaumont’s situation was more difficult because she was part of a charter group of teachers in Chicago.

“In most cases, (those schools) are just happy for a warm body, because so many teachers quit out of frustration,” she said.

Despite her struggles, she said the experience was rewarding. She forged a special bond with her students. One of the first things she did at a meeting with students interested in the program was to pass out pictures of her students, she said.

“I felt like a rock star when I went back to visit. Even the kids who misbehaved came and hugged me,” she said.

What corps members do after their two years of teaching is just as important as anything they do in the program, because that is where they will use what they learned to create lasting changes, Carey said.

Beaumont said her experience teaching in Chicago reinforced her plans to attend graduate school. Now that she has an advanced degree, she said she believes she can help make changes on a national level on issues such as standardized testing.

Ruszkowksi said he plans to attend law school, and will inject the spirit of the program into whatever he does in life.

“I will stay attached to the ideas that Teach For America espouses, no matter what my career path,” he said.