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Why I Teach for America

‘I kissed my social life good-bye’

Jamie Downs graduated from Carolina in 2007 and completed two years as a Teach for America fellow in Houston. He's now a program director for Teach for America in Kansas City, Mo.

I was sitting on the edge of my seat, watching Barack Obama walk across the stage at Grant Park on election night. I thought to myself, “I could’ve been a part of this momentous occasion!”

In the spring of my senior year in college I had grappled with the decision to accept my position as a Teach for America Corps member or to take an offered position with the Barack Obama campaign. The reflection that I could have been there in Chicago on election night was a strong but fleeting thought.

As I look back on my experience in Teach for America, I know that there is no other way that I would rather have spent these first two years out of college. The success that I have experienced in the classroom has affirmed the optimism I had when joining the corps: Committed individuals can change a classroom, and every year is an opportunity to redirect a child’s life.

My experience with Teach for America has been phenomenal. I have had the pleasure of teaching sixth-grade English at Fondren Middle School in Houston, Texas. My experience here has been both challenging and rewarding. When I first stepped foot on the campus, I had no idea what to expect. I had no teaching  experience, and I was charged with ensuring that 80 sixth graders were ready to master a comprehensive reading exam  by the end of the school year.

After administering a diagnostic exam to my students at the end of my first week, I was chagrined when I realized how behind my students actually were. Only 35 percent could read on a fourth grade level -- and those were the high achievers. I realized the immense challenge that lay before me.

That weekend I went home and examined my student’s data, searching for a solution that would get my students where they needed to be in just eight months. I knew it would take dedication on my part, but I would also have to find a way to invest in my students so that they wouldn’t tire out or give up. So I devised a master plan and kissed my social life good-bye. My plan was filled with countless after-school tutorials and Saturday enrichment sessions. I adopted a “by-any-means-necessary” approach and prayed that my students would be successful.

At the end of the year, it was with immense pride that I perused the outstanding gains that my sixth graders had made. Reviewing the passing and commended (95 percent or higher) reading scores was like seeing materialization of data tracking, remediation, and class commitment from month to month. My students, many of whom had never passed the exam before, were ecstatic when they learned of their success. My classroom was filled with hugs, smiles, and tears. My students had tasted success and loved it; now their lives would be changed forever.

 

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