Teach For America gives U grads opportunities

Amy Hackbarth

As a University student, David Miller loved and hated chemistry.

His love of the study motivated him to major in chemistry, but his hatred of the sterility and loneliness of lab work convinced him not to pursue a career in the field.

Months before graduating in the winter of 1999, Miller had to decide which direction he wanted his career to take.

“While I was working a lab as an intern, I saw maybe five people the whole day and only said two sentences,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that my whole life.”

Instead, Miller applied for a position at Teach For America, a private program similar to the Peace Corps that recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools for two years.

Less than a year later, Miller was
teaching life sciences and health to seventh-graders at a middle school in southeast Los Angeles.

“On the first day I saw all these little eyes looked up at me, and I’m going ‘Oh, gosh,'” Miller said. “It was overwhelming but also very exciting. I loved it.”

Teach For America looks for students similar to Miller, who are intelligent and motivated, said Francine Mangundayao, director of recruitment support for the Midwest.

“We look for people who are achievement-minded and natural leaders,” she said.

Teach For America has placed 7,000 college graduates at low-income schools since the program’s creation in 1989.

The program draws graduates from all majors, Mangundayao said.

“Whom do we want to place in these classrooms?” she said. “We just don’t want to let anyone lead these students.”

The average grade point average of
is 3.4, while the average SAT score is 1268. Most members also have participated in extracurricular activities.

Successful applicants can choose to teach in elementary or secondary schools and rank the 16 school systems where Teach For America participates.

A five-week summer institute teaches participants basic teaching principles and theories, such as how to create a lesson plan, before they begin teaching. The institute allows participants to teach with emergency credentials rather than the traditional teaching certificate.

That aspect draws students such as Brian Barlow, a University junior, who is majoring in business but said he always wanted to be a teacher.

“At Teach For America I can teach for a few years without having a teaching license,” he said.

Barlow said he wants to teach second-graders in Chicago or San Francisco before going to graduate or law school.

While some participants might enter the program with temporary teaching plans such as Barlow’s, more than 60 percent stay in education – either as teachers or as administrators.

“They realize the importance of the issue of closing the achievement gap,” Mangundayao said. “It becomes really close to their hearts.”

Now starting his second year at the middle school, Miller has decided he will stay on for a third year.

“It’s unbelievable how it is getting to know 350 children personally after two years,” Miller said. “I now have a commitment to Juan and Rosario and my other students too, and that’s what I keep in mind now when I make my decisions.”

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]