I will admit to an ulterior motive when I requested an ARC of Teacher by Michael Copperman. The memoir from a young man with Teach for America (TFA) brought back memories of the program. I was lead teacher for ten to twelve second grade classes with as many as three of these young people assigned to teach on my hall.
Some came open and willing to learn from the experienced well-trained teachers in our school who wanted them to succeed in their classrooms. Others had attitudes that I attributed to TFA that they were coming to an area where the educators themselves were inadequate. In the multi-cultural school where I taught, the need came from a shortage in the number, not capability, of trained teachers. Classroom discipline, another major issue, seemed to come from a TFA philosophy that if the teaching is interesting, problems will not happen.
Idealistic Michael Copperman left Stanford University for the Mississippi Delta and taught two years with the TFA program. His very honest account rang true to what I knew of TFA with the additional problem of the extreme poverty in the delta.
Political emphasis on teaching the test complicated his high ideals. Classroom management raised its head early for Mike with the “Teach well, and you’ll succeed,” philosophy from TFA crossing with the philosophy of the assistant principal’s paddle. A better answer than either of these came with the card-behavior system he borrowed from an experienced teacher – a system we used effectively in our second grade classes.
His second year began with a more realistic preparation for the challenge of classroom discipline and a focus on his students as individuals. For instance, he built on the beginning by a TFA colleague to engage one student with Boxcar Children books and the child’s determination to read them. He also came to realize one of his problems was that the world tells delta kids that this is all there is, a hard-to-fight attitude.
After he moved away into another job, still teaching students from challenging backgrounds, he confronted a speaker who disparaged the long term effects of the TFA program on young college graduates. He said the speaker “had no idea just how affecting the TFA experience was, that he couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in America’s troubled schools, to be responsible for children with so much promise and so little opportunity.”
Michael Copperman gives an honest and well-written account of his own experience with Teach for America. He pictures a program with high ideals that would be even more effective with practical guidance replacing some of the inspirational speeches. I would concur.