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TFA teachers foster students’ development

Mel Flanagan | Thursday, November 8, 2012

One week ago, senior Chris Jacques received an email that read, “Congratulations.”

Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit education program that aims to eliminate educational inequality, recruits heavily from college seniors such as Jacques. The organization employs recent graduates and professionals to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools across the nation.

Jacques, who currently serves as an on-campus representative for the organization, said he was attracted to TFA because of its commitment to close the achievement gap between students.

“Through my studies at Notre Dame and the [elementary and secondary schooling] minor, I came to realize the inequalities in our educational system, and I really wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Molly Sammon, class of 2012 and a member of the 2012 TFA Corps, said her time at Notre Dame also influenced her choice to join TFA.

“I did a [Summer Service Learning Program at Notre Dame] that was aligned with education and education policy in Lawrence, Mass.,” Sammon said. “I saw what the kids in Lawrence had, what their schools looked like and the resources they were given … I knew education equality was a social change I really wanted to get behind.”

Sammon teaches college algebra and algebra II to high school special education students on the south side of Chicago, her home city.

As an anthropology major with a minor in the John G. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy, Sammon said she was surprised, as well as doubtful, when she received her placement.

“I thought they would see my resume and think, ‘Okay, this girl needs to be an English teacher,'” she said. “If I had told myself senior year at Notre Dame that I was going to be a secondary math teacher I would have thought I was crazy.”

Despite her initial shock, Sammon committed to the program and said she has thoroughly enjoyed her past few months of teaching.

“It’s everything I wanted after graduation,” she said. “I love my job. It’s very tough, tougher than I ever thought and I work 12-hour days, but it’s incredibly worth it.”

The difficulties involved with teaching youth are endless, Sammon said. These difficulties are amplified when teaching youth from rough, poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

While she expected her high school students to be challenging, Sammon said she did not expect controlling their behavior to be as exhausting as it is.

“I knew these were tough kids, but I thought at the beginning, ‘Oh this is going to be a cool fun job where I just go hang out with kids and teach them math,'” she said.

Just last week, Sammon broke up a physical fight between a male and female student in her classroom. She later held a conference with the two students, their parents and the dean during which she described to the students why their actions were unacceptable, she said.

Learning to be strict with young adults demands even more of an effort, Sammon said.

“I like being nice and friendly and smiley,” she said. “I wanted to be that way with my students but I had to learn pretty quickly that I can’t be friends with all of them. They need a teacher who will get them in trouble when they need to be in trouble.”

Like Sammon, Jacques will also tentatively be teaching special education in Chicago.  

“I think [special education] adds an additional challenge, from learning the theories and pedagogies on how to teach special education,” he said. “It’s exciting to me though, something new is always exciting.”

Jacques expects to experience a number of difficulties during his time as a teacher. But these obstacles can be overcome by remembering the mission of the program, he said.

“You just have to keep in mind that it’s all about the kids, and that will make those hard days go by,” he said.

Despite a wealth of post-graduate teaching options, Jacques said his heart was always set on TFA.

He did not apply to any alternative programs, such as the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a faith-based organization whose mission is similar to TFA’s.

“I think TFA aligned more with what I want to do in an urban setting, and it gave me a little more freedom as a professional to pursue my own growth,” Jacques said.

Sammon, who did not apply to ACE either, chose TFA for multiple reasons. On a personal level, Sammon said she loved the economic and racial diversity at the public school she attended as a young student, and she wished to experience that atmosphere as a teacher.

On a political level, Sammon said she strongly believes in quality, free public education for all students.

“It’s something that influences how I vote, how I think about the world and what I think each student deserves,” she said. “All students deserve a good public school where you can get a quality teacher that doesn’t sit behind a desk all day, but works with you on improving your skills and giving you what you need.”

In addition to furthering the education of disadvantaged students, Sammon said her personal returns from the experience so far have been incredible.

“For every fight, or every parent that yells at me, for every kid that swears at me, there is an equal and greater chance that a student looks at me and says, ‘Wow, no one’s ever taught me that before,’ and you see the realization of a child learning something,” she said.

“And I swear to you, it’s the greatest feeling on the planet.”