The past two months have been a blur. Moving to Louisiana from New York to become a teacher was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but as I’ve discovered one of the best. My five weeks this summer teaching summer school in the Mississippi Delta taught me about a way of life that I had never previously encountered. The small town I taught in, Rosedale, had a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, a Dollar General, a few restaurants and a gas station. It was a dramatic departure from the busy, 24-hour lifestyle that I had become accustomed to. While the isolation from the urban life I had spent 23 years in was initially overwhelming, I learned to love it. While there might not be clubs, shopping or even movie theaters to go to at night, there were people — amazing people. I grew to appreciate the value of being able to speak to people for hours without any possible distractions because not even my cell phone had a signal to connect me with my old life. One of the best experiences of being in the rural Mississippi Delta was being able to foster strong relationships with my students’ families. I was the outsider in their community and they all were curious to get to know more. My bonds with their families helped reinforce my students’ Big Goal-driven mindsets. I know I made a difference for my students this summer, as their test scores and changed attitudes can attest, but I cannot help to wonder what will come of them now. I remain optimistic that the four weeks I spent working with them made a lasting impact and they continue believing that any opportunity they can imagine can be possible with hard work and dedication.
After my time in the Delta, Baton Rouge seemed like the big city. I was mystified by the busy streets, myriad of social options, and busier pace. It was initially stressful being unsure of which school I would be working in as the largest district in the area is cutting back on teachers this year, the extra time off was great at helping get better aquainted with the area. While I have only lived in Louisiana for a little over 4 of the past 9 weeks, it is quickly feeling like home. I have my favorite restaurants, bars, shops and have fostered strong friendships with many people here.
Early last week I began helping a friend prepare her middle school classroom in a rural LA district’s middle school. The facility was a former high school that had been designated as the district’s new middle school following budget cuts that forced the district to downsize and combine schools. When I first arrived at the school, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. The school itself was in good physical condition and had ample space, but much of the desks, books, equipment and supplies were strewn around the hallways to the point in which getting from room to room was challenging. As I spent more time in the school, I began to notice something amazing: the staff. While they had already spent the full day in professional development sessions, they stayed late each night making the school something special. Even if their classrooms weren’t completely ready, they helped each other, as well as giving common areas of the school a makeover. They embodied teamwork, a relentless pursuit of making their school a positive place for their students, and a willingness to do whatever it takes.
I knew that this school was someplace that I wanted to work. A wonderful coincidence occurred when TFA scheduled me for an interview at the same school the evening before school started and I was subsequently hired to teach middle school special education math inclusion and resource room. Even walking into my newly assigned classroom and seeing it had become a storage locker for all of the things that the other teachers wanted couldn’t hold me down. I could make a difference. I had become a teacher.
As of writing this, I am three days into the school year. While three days of teaching is hardly a noteworthy accomplishment compared to the amazing veteran teachers that have done this for 30 years or more, it is one that fills me with excitement. My students and I are off and running towards our big goal: All students will master 80% of their GLEs and score a basic or above on their end of year assessment (iLEAP, LEAP or LAA2). While scoring a basic may seem like a small goal, it is a huge one for my special education students. A basic level of proficiency on the exams is necessary to understand the following year’s content as well as pass the GEE exam to complete high school. With that said, only 21% of Special Education students in Louisiana will graduate with a high school diploma. I refuse to allow my students to fulfill that statistic. Our class may need extra help and support, not to mention a little bit of patience from their teachers, but there’s no reason why they cannot achieve the same success and have the same opportunities as their general ed classmates. It’s not going to be easy, but giving up is not an option – success is our only choice.