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Where Teachers Are Short, TFA is Strong

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 28 Jun 2011 06:15pm | comments
1st grader Jasiha Jackson

Mississippi is short on teachers, and the Delta region particularly hard hit. Teach for America has helped staff the region for decades, but a new training institute is bringing 800 corp members to the area this summer. 

Audrey Smothers said The Grouchy Ladybug has a lot to offer a first  grade summer school class.  On the surface, the students are working on comprehension, but they are also learning new vocabulary words and working on identifying feelings in others.  Josiha Jackson said he knows why this particular ladybug is grouchy.

 “The Grouchy Ladybug wanted to eat all the aphids, and she wanted to fight the friendly ladybug,” he said.

Smothers has only had a week on the job.  Originally from Kentucky, Smothers is a new Teach for America recruit. TFA is a program that trains highly qualified individuals in the art of teaching and places them in some of the poorest school districts in the country.  When Smother's arrived in the Delta, she assumed her students could excel given the proper instruction.

It’s challenging to think, to get them in the mindset that they are looking for something in the book that the author is not saying explicitly,” she said. “They did think of some good things.  They thought the ladybug was actually scared, and he was just saying those things”

This summer, Delta State University is hosting one of the largest TFA institutes.  More than 800 new teachers, known as corp members, will be trained in summer school classrooms across the region. 

Early on, the Delta was recognized by TFA as an area with many public schools in need, and it was chosen to house some of the first corp members ever trained.  It's only the second year the Delta has trained teachers who will be placed all over the South. Around 160 experienced teachers administer a hands-on crash course in running a classroom. 

Blake Hammond is a corp member advisor at the Delta Institute. 

“Basically, I’m making sure that when they enter their perspective areas, they are ready to facilitate teaching and really invest their students,” he said.

Hammond taught 4th grade math in Greenwood Mississippi as a TFA teacher.  He just finished his two-year commitment to TFA and has decided to stay on for at least another year.  Hammond says the new Delta Institute is a great opportunity to train teachers in a rural setting - a setting similar to the one most will be placed in.  It's a big switch for many corp members.

“Target and all those big time stores and malls might not be present in a rural setting, but teaching is universal,” he said.

Corp members, many recent college graduates, are packed in dorms while they endure 12 hour days or longer, teaching summer school, taking classes themselves, creating lesson plans and receiving one-on-one feedback from veterans like Hammond.

TFA Alumni aren't the only ones supervising training.  Many Delta teachers who followed a more traditional route into the profession are helping out.  But these teachers are becoming rare in places like the Delta.  The Mississippi Department of Education estimates that 4000 teaching positions open annually, but only one to two thousand teachers  graduate from Mississippi colleges each year.  That leaves thousands of vacant spots. 

Teachers at Delta Institute are from all over the country.  Mary Anderson, Principal of the elementary school where students were learning about the Grouchy Ladybug, said the energy these new teachers bring can be contagious.

“It’s like they are on fire,” said Anderson. “They are fresh and new and have all these good, new ideas.  It’s been a real plus for our district, because our students are benefiting and our teachers learning.”

Ideally, this would mean schools in the Delta and across the country are making changes that will last long after TFA teachers leave.  While that might not always be the case, the rigor students are exposed may have a lasting effect. Josiha said Ms Smothers is particularly tough.

“Yeah, tests are hard,” he said. “But there are going to be tests in life that are hard.” 

With hundreds of TFA  teachers being placed in the Delta annually, the real test facing the program is whether it can give Josiha and thousands of students living in one of the poorest areas of the country the tools to pull themselves out of poverty and thrive

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1st grader Jasiha Jackson


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