Christopher Geggie '08
As I am coming to the close of my fourth week of institute and the beginning of my fifth and last week in Phoenix, I cannot believe how far we, as recent college graduates, have come, both literally and figuratively, on our journey to become the first corps of Teach For America teachers in Indianapolis.
I am teaching English 1 to a class of mostly ninth graders with several tenth graders and one eleventh grader going into her senior year. This summer school program is the first of its kind in the Agua Fria School District because all of the area high schools are sending their summer school students to one place: Desert Edge High School.
I had some idea of what I was getting into when I signed up for TFA. Everyone throughout the whole process was very up front with the amount of dedication and hard work it was going to be. In the first week of institute alone (that’s five days) we drove over 1350 miles, corps members and staff, from ASU to Desert Edge High School and back. In addition to the pre-Institute readings and reflections, which took the average person I’ve spoken to close to 48 hours to complete (in addition to finals, senior theses, graduation, etc.) so that we can be more prepared to enter our classrooms in the fall, the first week of Institute was filled with many, many seminars on teacher-craft. To prepare us to enter our summer school classrooms, we had over 2,160 minutes of various sessions on topics ranging from creating effective lesson plans, to class room procedures, to classroom management, to literacy, and beyond.
That first week was very much like one of the toughest weeks I’ve experienced at Wabash, but there was something different about it. Whereas at Wabash I could stand to make mistakes because I had the safety net of being able to work out any academic issues with my professors; out here, under the sweltering heat in the Valley of the Sun, we are playing for keeps and my mistakes as a teacher could have long lasting effects.
The students coming to summer school at DE (as we call it) did not pass their courses during the regular academic school year and have this opportunity to reclaim the credit, and if they do not they will be held back. So walking into the first week of instruction the stakes were extremely high because we novice teachers had sixteen instructional days to put our students on track for tenth grade English.
Our first day of classes was administering out summer school diagnostic, which would help us determine which objectives that our students would need the most practice with so that they can move on. Even though there wasn’t any actual instruction going on that day, I was still nervous to be there, with those kids’ futures in my hands. We teach in a collaborative group of three TFA teachers. Each of use gets one 48 minute period. One shot for each of us to accomplish our individual objectives. 16 days to teach 52 learning objectives.
Looking at my class for the first time right before I was to hand them their diagnostic which would control the flow of their summer school, I realized the breadth of the responsibilities that I took upon myself. I realized that even with all of the high quality training that I had received in my week of training at institute I had so much more to learn. I realized that if I messed this summer up and didn’t uphold Wabash’s mission statement, I would not only be failing myself but my actions (or inactions) would cause my students to fail and I would be contributing to the vicious cycle of disappointment that keeps our students in the achievement gap. For the first time in a very, very long time I was scared. Now as I sit in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport waiting for my flight back to Indianapolis to teach at Arsenal Tech after five weeks of the most intense training I have ever done, I still am scared but I have since learned to utilize it to fuel my desire to help my students in every way that I can.
It was so strange to be in front of the classroom. As they were silently taking their reading objectives diagnostic, I thought about my high school days and laughed to myself. I thought about all of the shenanigans that I had pulled off (and gotten away with…), the ones my older brother, the master of mischief, did when he was in high school, and the looks I received as I handed them a test on the first day of school and laughed even more. They had no clue what was in store for them. I had so much fun in the first week of class taking cell phones away. DE has a rule that no electronics may be used while inside the school buildings. Naturally every student came in with a cell phone, iPod, etc. and always had to be on it. The students, in general, loved to text message.
They are so adept that they don’t even need to see the keypad. I have seen them text through their pant pockets, through backpacks, and behind folders to name three from a nearly endless list. I knew that my kids were very smart when I saw the infinite variations that they were able to come up with when we began to crack down on electronic use. There was one incidence in particular that even I didn’t suspect initially. Tony, of whom I will speak later, had rolled the cuff of his jeans up enough to conceal his phone and when we were completing our daily assessment (more to tell me whether or not I have been teaching the material effectively), he would reach down to “fix” his cuff and send/receive a text. It was that moment specifically that showed me that here was kid who could think out of the box. It also showed my class that even from across the room I can and will catch anything and everything.
While teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, I am human and I definitely had several, but to talk about all of them would require a separate blog in and of itself so I will limit myself to two: Queeshar and Tony.
Queeshar is a big guy. Looking at him the first day I found him kind of intimidating, he had a hard look on his face and probably played left tackle for his high school; based on that first perception I had made a note in my mind to begin to think about ways I could diffuse poor behavior from him. My interactions with him both inside and outside of the classroom, beginning that day, proved me wrong, much to my relief and delight. Queeshar is very soft spoken and very respectful. He has a bit of a speech impediment and also has issues with word fluency. As a result he needed more time to access the text in order to apply what we had been learning in class. He is so smart and readily and easily grasped the concepts of what we learned in class but it was a struggle for him to express himself on paper. I had the class write in a journal most days and one of the entries was “Why are you here this summer?” Queeshar wrote that he was here because he didn’t turn in homework. After getting to know him better, he didn’t turn in homework because he was a little self-conscious of his abilities. I applied all of the myriad reading strategies I learned in my Literary Specialist sessions and sent him a constant positive message that I believed in him, that I knew he understood the material, and that I didn’t care about spelling, I didn’t care about all of the minutiae of grammar (at that point). I believed that he could achieve and our belief in him directly translated to his investment in the class.
Two weeks ago when one of my collaborative partners was checking the class for understanding her material, she called on Queeshar and he answered incorrectly. He was so mad at himself for not recalling the correct answer that he cussed at himself under his breath. Last week when we were reviewing for our final, every time I walked by him he pulled me aside to check his answers and every time he had a correct answer I would see his face brighten up. You could see the pride he had in his work beam from him. When he walked into the room to take his final exam his fear was palpable. When the exam began and he realized that he knew everything on that test I saw the more relaxed, more confident Queeshar that had grown in these past few weeks. I graded his test and by the time I had reached the final page I had huge tears of pride welling in my eyes. After all of the hard work that he had put into this class, after the hours of after school help, after the phone calls on the weekend to make sure he understood his homework, he had scored the third highest grade in the class. He said that his dream is to go to law school and his efforts this summer showed me that his belief in himself tells him that he can and will be there.
Tony walked into the classroom that first day with the swagger of a “cholo”. “Cholo” is Spanish slang for “gang banger” and his actions in the first week of class told me that I needed to relate to him quickly on a personal level or we would lose him. I asked them to journal about a person whom they admire the most and after reading those entries, he officially moved into top position in my internal “favorites” rankings. He grew up in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. This area is one of the rougher Latino areas that are dominated by drugs and violence. His mother, the person whom he admires the most, didn't want that life for her children, so she packed up everything they owned and moved her family to the West Valley of the Phoenix area so that her children would be safe and would have better opportunities to them. I started to journal back to him in the comments I make on their entries. I told him that I grew up near El Soreno (another of such areas) which was less than 10 minutes from where he lived. I talked to him about my experience and what I have done and initially I thought he brushed it off. Sure his behavior in class had drastically improved and his assessment average was growing daily, but he still seemed disaffected in class. I asked them write about a problem their community faced and what they could do to solve it. Tony wrote about the drugs, the violence, and the death that he experienced living on Soto Street and said that his dream is to go back to LA and become a policeman or firefighter to work with the community and make that change.
On the last day of school, we had an activity where we all wrote our names at the top of a piece of paper and it was passed around the room in a circle for everyone to write an affirmation to one another. When I read Tony’s I realized just how close we were to losing him that first week of class. He said that he didn’t understand the material and therefore just didn’t care about class. After talking with him at the beginning of week two he began to work hard to understand the material; after that, there was little I could do to keep him from shouting out correct answers all day long. He wrote that he knows he can accomplish anything because I came from a similar neighborhood and there I was: proof that it can be done. He wrote “Thanks for everything you taught me and especially knowing that we both came from the same place. You helped me see that we could do it straight out of the ghetto and I am going to try hard and remember you when I become a firefighter. Thanks a lot. PS Thanks for helping me do my best and for pushing me to do it. Much love.”
When I look back on the past five weeks of my life, I see myself as a stranger to the person I once was. These five weeks of training, these four weeks of teaching have taught me so much and have forced me to grow in ways I could never have guessed. I have slept much less in these weeks than I ever have at Wabash. I’ve been frustrated more times than I count. I’ve been cranky every day when I would have to wake up at 5AM (I’m already turning into my dad…). And I’ve never been happier and more satisfied in my life. In 16 days I was able to alter the life paths of at least my nine students this summer. Last summer out of 320 students attempting to recover their credits, 108 succeeded. This summer, because of our collective efforts, 535 credits were recovered. If we can push our students to achieve that much in 16 instructional days, I can’t fathom what our impact will be at the end of the coming school year after 180 days.
It is difficult for me to explain how proud I am of my students and my fellow corps members. Through and through, they all have shown what living out our mission statement can do. We, in teaching our children to think critically, have had to think more critically than before; in teaching our students to act responsibly, we modeled behavior and explained what “acting responsibly” means in various contexts; through our teaching we showed everyone, students, faculty, and fellow corps members how one leads effectively; through our commitment to teach our nation’s future, through our firm belief that one day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, we live humanely.
In the days, months, and years to come I know that I will face problems and situations that will push me, pull me, drag me, and test me in ways that I cannot imagine and when that does happen I will remember that Queeshar, Tony, the rest of my kids this summer, and the countless other children who deserve to have that excellent education are why I Teach for America.