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Davis, California

Monday, October 25, 2021

Teach for America fosters passion for educational equality

Senior nutrition science major Molly McDermott remembers the first time she observed the disparities of wealth in the United States. As a young girl, she and her family went on a trip to Chicago where she saw a Ritz Carlton hotel across the street from the projects.

This became a defining moment for McDermott, who now works as a campus campaign coordinator for Teach for America (TFA), an organization devoted to training participants to teach and advocate for students in the neediest areas across the U.S.

McDermott, who will graduate from UC Davis in the spring, will be teaching high school biology in Chicago, becoming one of 82,000 members working with TFA.

“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, yet the truth of the matter is that the 14 million children living in poverty are not given the same educational opportunities as their affluent peers, and there is no reason for this,” McDermott said.

TFA began in 1989 as a proposal by college student Wendy Kopp from Princeton University in a senior thesis paper. Now TFA recruits adults with at least a bachelor’s degree to commit to a five-week training program and two years to teaching students in low-income neighborhoods in 39 regions across the country.

In return, participants are given full salary with benefits and awarded the Americorps educational award to pay off student loans. Participants with TFA can also be enrolled in a joint program to obtain their master’s degree in education and are fully credentialed teachers at the end of two years.

Most importantly, TFA becomes an experience that influences those involved to become passionate about the current state of educational disparities in the U.S.

TFA teachers can be found all across the country, from Hawaii to New York. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining TFA may all vary; however, they share the same commitment to positively influence the students in their classrooms.

Ashlee Gutierrez, a UC Davis alumna, is in her second year teaching sixth grade math and science in West Oakland. Currently, Gutierrez teaches two classes with 42 students and feels that despite the daily challenges and overwhelming sense of responsibility, she is in love with her job.

“I have 42 amazing, resilient children who come from some of the most tragic circumstances I have ever seen,” Gutierrez said.

Despite teaching sixth grade, Gutierrez said her students’ skills range from as low as reading at a second grade level.

Similarly, UC Davis alumna Megan Ernst, also in her second year, teaches a science class and finds the same ranges in her high school classrooms in Los Angeles.

However, apart from academics, both alumni have found it challenging to engage and connect with students who have such distressing circumstances in their lives and is just as demanding on their time.

Gutierrez remembered one of her students who lashed out in the classroom toward other students and herself. After learning not to take her student’s outburst personally and making home visits, a procedure TFA members are trained to do, Gutierrez worked with her one-on-one and gradually saw an improvement. By the end of the school year, the student left the classroom performing at grade level, Gutierrez said.

“I learned that this student was lashing out for a reason. And it was a result of pain and hurt that he carries,” Gutierrez said.

The systemwide budget cuts that are affecting schools at every grade level do nothing to alleviate the problems already found in the classrooms of TFA teachers.

Ernst teaches six classes at her high school and finds that a lack of resources and budget cuts have expanded her classroom sizes to 40 plus kids. Her largest classroom has 47 students.

Gutierrez said she sees students who are jaded by the system and as a result, have lower self-esteem.

“There are not a lot of people in their lives telling them that they are capable. They need positive reinforcement. These are children. They need somebody,” Gutierrez said.

TFA is just one organization that has made it a mission to help these children, not only directly by placing committed individuals in the United States’ poorest regions, but also through its members’ future work.

“TFA looks for individuals who not only want to be teachers, but who want to be lawyers, doctors and politicians. Even if corps members are not in the classroom [after their two year’s service] most will come away continuing to advocate for their students,” McDermott said.

This seems to be true of Gutierrez and Ernst, both of whom plan to move on to work in educational policy.

For more information about TFA, check out teachforamerica.org or contact McDermott at mmmcdermott@ucdavis.edu.

JESSY WEI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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