The Birth of a Teacher
By Monica Groves
Editor’s Note: In 2004, Dateline NBC captured the struggle of Monica Groves, Ed.M., through her first year as a language arts teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. The Education of Ms. Groves chronicles her as an aspiring educator faced with the tough realities that urban students and teachers face on a daily basis.
In 2007, Monica completed her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and then returned to her former school to reinvest in the community. In this essay, Monica shares from her experience and recent research to bring home the importance of supporting new teachers in tough urban settings.
When I arrived at the University of Virginia as a first year undergraduate student, like most of the people around me, I didn’t know in what direction my life was headed. Of all the possibilities, however, the 18-year-old version of Monica Groves would never have guessed it was teaching. As a young girl, I remember teaching was the one career I definitively said I would never pursue. Although I loved school and admired many of my teachers, I couldn’t imagine being the one in the front of the classroom — sometimes loved and sometimes not — demanding the respect of a class. I can recall days when the only thing on my classmates’ agenda was how to drive the teacher crazy, and I would cringe and think, “Why would anyone sign up for this?” Little did I know that one day I would not only sign up, but I would also love it.
During my college years, I had a number of professors who had a profound impact on my life. Their teaching not only increased my understanding in my fields of study, but also inspired me beyond the realm of the curriculum. With their guidance, I learned just as much about myself as I did about the subject matter of the course. I grew the most, both academically and personally, in their classrooms. Meanwhile, the urgency to become an educator was all around me; I was well aware of how I was benefiting from an excellent education, and at the same time, becoming more and more aware of the startling statistics facing economically disadvantaged students. Current statistics show that fourth graders growing up in economically disadvantaged communities are on average three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities. Roughly 50 percent of these students won’t graduate from high school, those who do will perform on average at an eighth-grade level , and only one in 10 will graduate from college.
Committing Two Years to Teach in an Urban Classroom
Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that recruits recent college graduates to commit two years toward teaching in low-income rural and urban areas, had a strong presence at my university, and I was drawn to learn more about the organization’s mission to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation's most promising future leaders in this effort. The girl who said she would never become a teacher was now feeling the conviction to be just that. I was one of thousands of other recent graduates, who by some twist of fate turned their eyes toward the importance of ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, should receive an excellent education.
Uphill Battles for the Teacher and Her Students
Following graduation, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to begin teaching sixth-grade language arts. I had limited classroom experience, so I expected to face an uphill battle and a steep learning curve, but the wide-eyed optimism in me was determined to be successful “by any means necessary.” It was hard all right, but for reasons I hadn’t anticipated.
I expected, if anything, for normal teacher-student angst to frustrate me. In reality, I generated most of my frustration on my own. I wanted so badly to be like the phenomenal teachers in my life that when anything threatened to derail that vision, I would panic. I had always expected hard work to leave me with a feeling of success, but in this case it wasn’t always that simple.
I spent hours planning lessons, remained at school late into the evening to prepare for the next day, and dedicated all of my energy during the school day to engaging my students in the curriculum.
My students, who were often battling obstacles that I, as an adult, would have struggled to bear, continued to persevere, yet both of our actions didn't always automatically translate into academic success. The factors contributing to the achievement gap in our country are far more complex than most non-professionals can fathom. Since I knew from firsthand experience that a lack of hard work wasn’t the easy answer for my stalled success as an educator, my thoughts were consumed with what was. Was I ill prepared, or was I simply not cut out for this kind of work?
Teach for America: No Band-Aid
Some critics of Teach For America argue that recruiting recent college graduates who are non-education majors to teach is a band-aid, or worse, a detriment to closing the achievement gap. But the research says otherwise.
According to an independent study conducted in 2007 by Policy Studies Associates, nearly all principals (95 percent) rate Teach For America corps members as effective as — if not more effective than — other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement. Nearly two-thirds of principals (61 percent) regard Teach For America teachers as more effective compared with other beginning teachers in their schools with respect to their impact on student achievement. Furthermore, the vast majority of principals rate corps members as good or excellent on indicators of effective teaching and behaviors.
This data is encouraging especially since the study also found that corps members are working in the highest-need classrooms in the country, where students begin the year on average at the 14th percentile against the national norm.
Nevertheless, at times I worried that my coworkers would perceive my challenges as a new teacher as a function of my nontraditional route to the classroom rather than because of my novice status. But I found the opposite to be true.
Acquiring Teaching Skills in the Classroom
When I sought advice from veteran teachers, they often saw parallels between my challenges and their experiences as a new teacher. Education major or not, almost everyone expressed that they, too, needed to acquire the additional skill sets that only experience could develop. Now this raises an interesting conundrum. If a skill set that is critical to effective teaching is developed primarily once teachers are independently teaching in the classroom, credentials alone will not promise efficacy. We have to find ways to support our teachers while they develop those skills, especially in the midst of tremendous challenges that can make it difficult for students to learn, and also, for teachers to teach. How is it possible?
Answering this question is critical to the success of students in low-income communities. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2003) found that teacher attrition is roughly 50 percent higher in economically disadvantages areas than in affluent ones. As a Teach For America corps member, I had consistent support through the organization to develop theories of action to address my challenging situation. These additional resources are not accessible to most new teachers. Although most will agree that having highly qualified teachers in all classrooms is critical for ensuring a quality education for all children, it is a fallacy to believe that highly qualified is the same as having all the answers. If time and support are not invested into new teachers, we will never benefit from the expertise a veteran teacher has to offer our children.
The Continuing Education of Every “Ms. Groves”
Although my Teach For America commitment ended after two years, I knew that I would return to the classroom because I felt that the future — mine, theirs, and our country’s — was forever connected. I am now in my fourth year of teaching and have a master’s degree in teaching curriculum, yet every school year “The Education of Ms. Groves” continues. Although each year I am increasingly more effective than the last in meeting my students where they are academically and moving them to perform on or above grade level, the process of responding to challenges and learning from them has been never-ending.
I look back at the 21-year-old college graduate who entered the classroom for the first time, and I now understand that I was inexperienced, not ill-prepared, and that I had “what it took” as long as I remained just as committed to learning as my students. A professor at Harvard University once said, “A good teacher isn’t born. A good teacher is developed.” Upon reflecting on my journey as an educator, however untraditional, I agree wholeheartedly.
If we invest in our teachers with the same enthusiasm in which we invest in our students, an education major, a Teach For America corps member, or an individual who enters the teaching profession mid-career can all be part of the movement to disrupt the cycle of inequities perpetuated in our education system. Perhaps I wasn’t born to be a teacher, but the love of teaching was born in me.
Monica Groves grew up in an upper-middle class Michigan suburb, and she did not hesitate when receiving the call to urban education. Her exemplary work among African-American youth exposes how public education has the potential to both elevate and fail our young people.
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