Life Lessons

UAB Alumni Give Back with Teach for America

By Caperton Gillett

Teach for America matches college graduates with schools in need. The highly competitive program challenges bright students to put their careers on hold for two years while they teach at schools in 39 high-need regions across the United States. To date, eight UAB alumni have responded to this challenge, working in classrooms from New Mexico to downtown Atlanta. Four of those graduates—two who recently completed the program and two who are still serving—explain why they chose to join Teach for America, and what the experience has taught them.

spring2011_teacher-carpenter

Josh Carpenter

B.S., Economics/Accounting (2010)
Serving in Marion, Alabama

Josh Carpenter (above) was ready to teach for America before he ever heard of Teach for America: He first became aware of educational disparities when he was in high school. “It was a big moment for me to realize for the first time that a lot of kids in Alabama were at a disadvantage,” he says.

Carpenter applied for Teach for America in his senior year at UAB and was assigned to teach English at a high school in Alabama’s Black Belt—becoming a part of the first group of Teach for America corps members to serve in the state. While he didn’t have to travel too far from UAB, the subject matter was somewhat foreign to this accounting major. “Teaching English is using a very different hemisphere of the brain,” he says. “It’s been interesting. I had to do a lot of refreshing and learn on the fly,” he says.

Carpenter also took on extra duty as an assistant football coach at his school. “I ended up biting off more than a lot of 23-year-olds—teaching a subject they didn’t learn in college and coaching a game they hadn’t played in four years,” he admits. But the team had its best season in four years, and by gaining the trust of his football players, Carpenter was able to make inroads with their classmates as well.

The challenges of rural life are often apparent in his classroom, Carpenter says. “My kids had a poetry assignment, and some came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t memorize it because the power went out in my house last night. It was dark.’ The reality is that many of them live in homes where electricity is a luxury.” Holding his charges to the same standards and expectations as better-off students elsewhere in the state is difficult, Carpenter says. But in the end, “it’s all about the relationships you develop with your kids.”

Carpenter’s plans for the future include graduate degrees in education policy and work in educational consulting, as well as higher education. “It sounds about as logical as teaching English after doing economics and accounting,” he admits. But the payoff is clear. “It’s so rewarding to know you’ve actually enabled someone to achieve something they otherwise might not have, to hold themselves to high expectations and be confident. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve been a part of.”

 

Lindsay Swain

B.A., Spanish (2008)
Served in Rio Grande Valley, Texas

swainLindsay Swain studied international studies and Spanish at UAB for the express purpose of working on educational disparities in Latino populations along the South Texas border. She hadn’t planned to do that work from behind a teacher’s desk, but Teach for America provided her an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

The graduation rates for Hispanic students in high-poverty areas are “just outrageous,” Swain says. “In Teach for America, you don’t have to have a background in education—they just want people who are interested in making a change. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

Swain was assigned to a high school in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas teaching Texas history—“because being from Alabama, I knew so much about Texas history,” she jokes. A nine-week summer institute with TFA prepared her for her first day in class. Still, “I just remember being terrified,” she says, “and thinking, ‘Why is a 23-year-old in charge of a hundred kids? Is this right?’”

Swain says that investing in her students paid dividends in her own life. “My kids were the most rewarding thing,” she says—“being able to spend time with them and seeing their growth, being able to guide their worldviews into something outside themselves, and seeing them talk about going to college.”

The Teach for America experience influenced Swain’s personal vision for the future; she is now pursuing master’s degrees in social work and divinity at Baylor University. “My plan is to work in a nonprofit organization as a social worker,” she says. “And I would love to get back to working with students—especially kids in minority settings who are troubled and need somebody to believe in them.”

 

Jennifer Giles

B.S., Psychology (2010)
Serving in Houston, Texas

giles“Teach for America was everything I was looking for after I graduated,” says Jennifer Giles. “It was a way to do something meaningful, and it was all brand-new—I could go somewhere new, meet new people, and have an overall rewarding experience. That’s what I was looking for.”

Giles’s chemistry minor proved helpful in preparing lessons for her eighth graders, but she was surprised to see how useful her psychology education was as well. “Teaching involves a lot of psychology,” she says. “It’s about motivating your students and getting them to do what you need them to do.”

After even one semester, Giles is inspired by the way her students have grown. “I have kids who would barely show up at school a few days a week,” she says. “But even before Christmas break, one student told me that his favorite thing about class was that it was preparing him to go to college. It really is rewarding to see them be motivated and motivate themselves—they’re actually excited about it and they want to do well.”

Just one semester into her commitment, Giles already is thinking about more—an extra year with Teach for America, or more teaching after graduate school. “My plan was to get a master’s or a Ph.D. in clinical psychology,” she says. “After this, I’m not sure if I want to stay in the classroom, but I want to work in education and somehow help with Teach for America’s mission.”

Giles feels that her eyes and her options have been opened. “I knew that would be part of it going in, and that was what was exciting to me,” she says. “Even after just a few months, I can see all the new options I’d never considered.”

 

Christopher Watson

B.S., Biopsychology (2008)
Served in Atlanta, Georgia

sp2011_alumni4Cristopher Watson never wanted to teach. “I wanted to go to medical school and do rural medicine,” he says. But a conversation with a recruiter about educational disparities sold him on Teach for America. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” he says.

Watson was placed at a high school in Atlanta, Georgia, where he taught biology. Although the material was familiar to him, he had one hurdle to overcome: a paralyzing fear of public speaking. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to get up and do it every day for the next two years.’”

His first class on his first day was a 30-minute advisement period, and a computer error had left him with two classes’ worth of students. “So I’m in the room with 40 teenage girls,” he says. “And the conversations that were going on—” He broke the ice with introductions and small talk, “and when I finally looked up, we’d been there for an hour and a half.”

Watson was shocked to see some of the difficult circumstances his students were dealing with: A girl who seemed to have a bad attitude was forced to sleep outside after fights with her mother. Others had even more staggering home lives. “Sometimes they just need somebody to listen,” he says. “I’m an open book to my students, I’m real with them, and it creates this trust and bond.”

Watson plans to complete a master’s degree in health management and policy at Georgia State University and then attend medical school—with the ultimate goal of providing health care to residents of rural Alabama. “We get a quality education at UAB,” he says. “We need to go out and spread some of that around.”