Teach For America member shares story

Posted 11:44pm May 9

by Marcus Mrowka
U-WIRE Washington Bureau Chief

“There are times when you feel that the class is in charge of you and you just want to run, other days you sit back and say, ‘Wow, I did something great’,” says Casey Fullerton, a fourth grade teacher at Simon Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Simon Elementary School is located in Southeast Washington, an area that is far removed from the white marbled buildings that make up the federal government and the ornate monuments that christen the mall area.

Students who pass through the walls of Simon will end up at Ballou High School, a school in the news this past year because of a major shooting and other violence. Casey says Simon is rough, but not dangerous.

“I’ve never felt at harm,” she says. “There has never been a weapon [in my two years]; these kids walk from their homes to the school. It’s definitely a tough place, though but not dangerous.”

Southeast Washington has some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country: most Washingtonians characterize the area as full of drugs, crime and poverty. Local university students in other parts of Washington are told to stay out of Southeast. But this is where Casey has taught school for nearly two years.

Casey Fullerton is a 2002 Corps Member of Teach For America, an organization that takes college graduates, gives them summer training and places them in underfunded and poor performing school districts around the country. The corps members commit to teach at their school for two years. In that time, many are required to get their teaching certification in that state, or at least work towards certification. Currently, Casey is one of over 100 Corps members in Washington. There are six others at Simon alone.

Teach For America was founded in 1990 by Princeton University graduate Wendy Kopp and has since sent over 10,000 corps members to twenty school districts across the country. Teach For America first came on her radar when her roommates at college were applying. She didn’t think her roommates were well-suited to be teachers, and she felt inspired. The application process is long and drawn out for Teach For America, and Casey remembers day-long interviews, group projects and essays. She says that she thinks you need to be certain that this is what you want to do to be selected. The people without the full dedication are weeded out. Washington was her first choice, and she doesn’t regret it at all.

“Every day I drive to school and pass the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, symbols of our national commitment to equity and justice. I think to myself how unfortunate it is that our nation’s capital still holds such educational inequity. There is nowhere else I would rather be than with my own classroom full of amazing students. Where better to fight for change than in the backyard of the President of the United States,” she says.

Training consists of endless workshops and a month in the Bronx. She says it was extremely challenging, frustrating and difficult. And hot.

“It’s so hot in the Bronx, we had four fans and that didn’t even help,” she says.

She had a summer school class with other corps members and a final test for students and the corps members to measure progress.

“Teach For America really pushes you,” Casey says. “It was so tough, but it wasn’t as difficult as my first year of teaching.”

“I was overwhelmed from the minute I walked in; there was so much I had to do. I had twenty kids thrown at me at twenty different levels and with a month of training I was expected to move them. I didn’t know what to do with the kid in the corner who was misbehaving or my special-ed kids,” she said. “The trick was to find out what each kid needed and mold myself. By January I felt comfortable.”

She remembers that last year she had set up an incentive program for the kids.

“The class would receive a link each time they did something to merit one whether it be good behavior or high scores on a test. The goal was to link across the chalk board. The process took from September to December and I had to think of a good incentive for the kids.”

“I wrote a letter to the Washington Wizards telling them about my class and about myself and received twenty tickets to go to a game. The woman called me on Monday and the game was on Wednesday and I had to act fast. We don’t have much money to rent buses, but the principal got one for us because of all my effort. We were so far away and so high up but the kids loved it; they had never seen Michael Jordan before. They had hats and T-shirts.”

“The next day we did work on the game. It was just one of those things; the kids were on cloud nine. And they went there because they came together and worked together for it.” Casey enjoys thinking outside of the box in her teaching style.

“It’s really important to create lessons with more than you have in front of you. I try to make my classroom really hands-on and have the kids really experience their classroom.”

“Once we did a lesson on African American music and how it affects history and culture. We listened to artists like Duke Ellington and read about these people and wrote about them.”

“I like to use my classroom as a learning tool, putting price tags on things to learn math or getting bankers hats.”

“I wouldn’t want to teach any other way, I wouldn’t be able to. The other way is just boring. I challenge myself everyday with them.”

Casey is continually reminded of the poor conditions kids are taught in in Washington. Besides being in a relatively poor neighborhood, the school has seen significant budget cuts. Sometimes there isn’t even money for the essentials, like paper, pencils, markers or chalk.

The problems are also there in achievement. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, fourth grade students in low-income areas are three grade levels below other students in reading and math and are seven times less likely to graduate from college than students from higher-income districts.

“The real problems with the school come from the District. We haven’t had supplies and I’ve spent a great deal of my own money,” she said.

“I visited a lot of garage sales over the past two years.”

“I would bring in the necessities, sometimes I would ask my kids to bring things in, other times parents donated things.”

She says most of the stereotypes about the parents and students aren’t true.

“I’ve seen tremendous growth, and these kids want to learn without hesitation. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them and the parents, I almost feel like I’m talking to a friend when I talk to them.”

While it took some time adjusting to being a teacher, Casey says she has really enjoyed her commitment to Simon.

“This was such a great year, when I walk into the classroom I feel like I’m a teacher,” she says. “Last year I felt like I was making mistakes everyday.”

“My intensions were short-term but now I really love it,” she says. “I’ve fallen in love with my school and my kids. I’d absolutely do it again and wouldn’t trade in my experiences for anything.”

She started looking into options for her students as they were headed towards middle school. She found a public charter school run by former Teach For America corps members and then became interested herself. Casey will be teaching sixth grade there next year.

Casey says that Teach For America helps corps members realize the need in education and these at risk school districts. She says that it takes a commitment beyond the Teach For America mission of two years.

Indeed, over 60 percent of corps alumni stay in the field of teaching, whether as classroom instructors, administrators or policy workers. The charter school Casey plans to work in next year is part of a network of charter schools across the country formed by Teach For America Alumni in 1994.

“I don’t think I could see myself leaving the classroom right now,” Casey says. “My goal is to be that teacher that they’ll never forget.”

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