Monday, March 19, 2012

A Spring Break with TFA

By Nina Gokhale
I spent my spring break in Memphis, Tennessee as a participant in Maximum Impact: Alternative Spring Break with Deloitte and Teach for America. Over a period of four days, I was able to witness first hand the struggles of this community. We spent our first evening exploring Memphis, where only 4% of students graduate college-ready. The next three days we worked with TFA members and school administrators at various schools. Following are my reflections on each day’s events.

Beale Street is like a smaller version of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Bars with neon signs line the street. Live music pours from open doors. There was a fair number of people out for a Sunday evening, but as we ventured out, the scenery changed. Historic landmarks and office buildings are heavily interspersed with boarded up structures. Few cars drove by. For the largest city in the state, it seemed far too empty.
I spent my day doing landscaping and secretarial work. The work I did was mundane, but somehow, I’ve still come away feeling satisfied. I’ve long been troubled by the fact that the work I do does not seem to make a long-lasting difference. And I’ve heard it a lot, but I’m really starting to see that small amounts of time can help. One hour from thirty-five of us can greatly reduce a teacher’s work outside of the classroom. A morning in the dirt can create an environment where students are proud and excited to come to each day. The gratitude everyone expressed is truly remarkable and has shown me that my efforts can be the highlight of another’s day, week, or month. 
We spent the following day at a middle school. Here I had the opportunity to work with small groups on math problems. For a few, it clicked. In other cases, however, I felt like I was merely speaking at the students, unable to tell whether they had any grasp of what I was saying. Only when I began to work on more personal levels with my groups of six, addressing individual issues, did I see any progress. But I struggled running around even with this small few. I cannot even begin to understand how teachers are expected to work with classes of 30 and address the various levels of students’ understanding. I always assumed that children slipping between the cracks was due to lack of care on part of the teachers, but I am seeing it’s a lot more complicated than this.

During a college Q&A, one student asked about paying for college. I gave the classic answer, about scholarships, financial aid, loans, etc. But it was difficult, giving them this broad answer, when many do not have the resources necessary to understand the complicated processes to finance their educations. And even with aid, there are still significant out of pocket expenses. A TFA corps member told us afterwards that he encourages his students to go to community college prior to attending a university. While a necessary move for many, this increasing long and expensive process will unfortunately make a college degree even less attainable for these students.
The idea of TFA terrifies me. Being the force that is supposed to motivate students and put them on track is an incredible amount of pressure. Yet for some reason, this new found fear is not driving me further from the idea of being a corps member, but closer to it. The hours of frustrations and failures are worth it, even if only a few achieve their potential. It’s scary, but the cause is worth fighting for.