Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Mississippi Teacher Corps Experience

At this point, though admittedly close to the events in question, I’d have to consider my Mississippi Teacher Corps experience to be largely a failure. I have come to this conclusion after about two years of thought, even though writing it now I feel as if I am voicing a rash, rush judgment.

I entered MTC with the highest of hopes. I was innocently idealistic and envisioned myself – as much as I tried not to – fulfilling the role of the Hollywood-scripted teacher, inspiring the apathetic masses and shaping generations. I suppose we all believed in this myth to a degree, otherwise we would not have signed up to teach.

The day I found out I had been admitted to MTC, I was nearly as excited as the day I got into college. I told my friends, “I am set for life,” meaning that I thought by going through MTC I would be trained in a profession I could always fall back on, whether I ended up absolutely loving teaching or seeing it as something to do post-midlife crisis. By signing up for MTC I was not only fulfilling what I really wanted to do – make a difference, help kids, help my country, etc. – but also planning for my future by receiving training in a profession. A masters in education would grant my liberal arts undergraduate degree some structure, would make it seem a little more solid.

Upon arriving in Mississippi I was first struck by my peers who were entering the program. Though I had been told that MTC was the “most competitive” alternate-route teaching program in the country, I was shocked to find that my comrades did not live up to my high expectations of them. Part of the reason I joined Teacher Corps was because I wanted to be part of an active community that strived to ask big questions, make big changes, and work together. I commonly stumbled upon petty bickering, undeserved arrogance, and shortsightedness. In our academic classes people seemed more bent on critiquing systems rather than finding workable solutions, one of my pet-peeves about volunteer, charity, and nonprofit organizations with which I have been involved (not to mention the educational field in general). This should not take away from the numerous amazing individuals I met through MTC; it was that handful of folks that made the program worthwhile for me. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the individuals I found unappealing or troublesome dropped out of the program, either quickly (within a few weeks) or by the end of the first year. I did not expect every member of MTC to be incredibly interesting, intelligent, or inspiring, but the way the program was advertised made it seem that its members were far better than mediocre, which is what I commonly encountered in many members of my MTC class and the one preceding it: stunning mediocrity.

The “academic” portions of the MTC program also left much to be desired. I came in thinking that the graduate coursework at Ole Miss would be challenging and a welcome intellectual respite from the weekly grind of teaching. I was sadly mistaken. Almost all of my classes were incredibly dull and produced about as much intellectual stimulation as the prime-time lineup on the Fox television network. My experiences in the classrooms of Guyton Hall left a bitter taste in my mouth about the University of Mississippi School of Education specifically and education graduate programs in general.

That said, the heart of MTC is not ones classmates, nor is it ones academic work, it is the classroom. And I have had some amazing times in the classroom over the past two years, many of which I hope have been chronicled in this blog and other MTC assignments. I have truly enjoyed hanging out with my students and being a part of their lives, even if I have not enjoyed being a teacher. I am sure I will keep in touch with many of my students for years and decades to come.

The training I received from MTC which prepared me to enter the classroom was solid. I learned how to present academic topics, check for student understanding, manage the behavior of individual students (if not the class as a whole), complete the paperwork associated with teaching, and deal with my administration and peers. The one main problem was that I was never prepared for the most major problem teachers in under-performing schools face. It was never addressed in my summer classes or mentioned as one of the major problems in teaching in either MTC or Teach for America’s recruiting materials. Even some older members of Teacher Corps (including second years, MTC instructors, and MTC administrators who had been members of the program previously) did not adequately warn me about it. Maybe it was assumed that I would be versed in this most horrible of problems, this steepest of hills, this tallest of hurdles, but I was not. I had no idea about the plague of student apathy.

The way MTC and TFA present their programs in recruiting materials, I believed my work teaching in a poor, underperforming school would be akin to driving into Mogadishu in 1993 atop an United Nations truck filled with rice. Sinewy, dust-covered black arms would reach up to me as I stood atop the truck, handing out what I could as quickly as I could. “Education! Education!” they would call. I’d be there to give it to them, and they’d greedily claim it, immersing themselves in it as Robinson Crusoe would dig into a steak dinner.

Alas, I was mistaken.

And there’s the rub: one cannot help those who do not want to be helped. It is a simple fact of life which is also a simple fact of teaching. Because of student apathy (not to mention the apathy of their parents and the greater community), I was unable to accomplish my goals in the classroom.

But this failure – and my greater dissatisfaction with my Teacher Corps experience – is the fault of only one person: me. More than anything, I failed to fully embrace Mississippi as my home and community. I was constantly being tugged at by concerns elsewhere. My family, which was one thousand, four hundred-and-fifty miles away. My friends, who were in some cases ten thousand miles away. Other intellectual interests, particularly what I could be spending my time exploring. Other professional interests. and the thoughts of what I could be doing instead of teaching.

So, Ben, that's all I have for now. I'm sure there's more, but I am tired and I'm going to bed. Sorry, buddy.


Blogger Kunai-Gurl said...

Mr Atlas,

I agree with you on many things in this blog: schools of education are a sad and painful experience, and the students are the most important and meaningful reason for why we are here in the first place. However, I think you should be a little more cautious in your judgement of your peers. The people who stayed in this program have two years of dedication and experience to speak for them; and, like you said, this experience is difficult - hardly something a mediocre person could successfully put up with.

Perhaps your original gut instinct of 'voicing a rash, rush judgement,'should have been trusted.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Russell Barksdale said...

I like how you started out on an optimistic note about wanting to find solutions instead of punching holes in what is already there. I do think it is important to remember that there is only so much room for existing systems, and sometimes one has to remove the old structure to build a new one.

As to the rest, I think you need to get over yourself. Of course the students are apathetic. Why wouldn't they be? Do you think because you are (probably) middle or upper class, (probably) from a university held in higher esteem than the ones most of their other teachers attended, (probably) not from the Delta or inner-city Jackson, (probably) not African American, and (likely) not from Mississippi that the students should have known what a great teacher you were going to be and rushed under your protecting and enlightening wing?

There are two ways to be happy in the classroom. The first is have really low standards and not push your students and only expect from them what their previous teachers have. You should be proud of yourself for not taking that route.

The second way is to be a great teacher. Great teachers don't have severe problems with student apathy. They have bad days, but not bad years. There probably are at least three great teacher at your school. The key to being a great teacher is working really, really hard and keeping an open mind.

Every teacher is being pulled in many different directions in life.

I hope at the end of the year, you get over blaming every thing besides yourself for your experience. The healthier attitude would be to teach at your school next year and see if your results improve. Every year you are at the same school, the student's apathy will wane and your legend will grow. Instead of coming into the class thinking you are another new teacher that will be gone in a few years, they will come in thinking you are the exciting teacher their older brothers and sisters told them about.

Either do that, or accept that there are people out there doing a lot better job than you. Accept that Teacher Corps is a facilitator, and not a promise to prop you up in a position that guarantees you success. Many Teacher Corps teachers have succeeded in classrooms as difficult as yours. Not because they were born as great teachers, but because they put in the hours to show the students that they care. Maybe it wasn't the MTC or the students that failed to carry an end of the bargain.

12:59 PM  

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