Teaching for America: Overcoming class struggles

By most standards, GW alumnus Steve Khadam-Hir doesn’t sound like a world-class hip-hop artist. But despite his lack of rapping skills, his beats are all the rage among fourth graders at Houston’s Eleanor Tinsley Elementary School.

“You make an idiot of yourself in front of these kids, but they love it and think it’s hilarious,” said Khadam-Hir, who has tried to pique his students’ interest in math by putting multiplication tables to raps. One of his most recent hits is a ditty about the number six to the tune of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.”

Khadam-Hir, who graduated last year, is one of the 111 GW graduates who have joined the ranks of Teach for America since 1999. The non-profit Teach for America seeks to eliminate educational inequality by putting the country’s brightest college graduates to work as teachers in schools in low-income rural and urban communities.

This academic year, Khadam-Hir has been teaching science, social studies and writing at a school where about 95 percent of students qualify for the free lunch program.

“Any first year teacher will tell you it’s the hardest year of your life,” he said. “Coming in (without) an education background has definitely been difficult, just because there’s so many aspects of teaching you don’t get through the training Teach for America does give you.” Students who work for Teach for America spend the summer at a five-week training program, called Institute, before working at schools full-time in the fall.

Khadam-Hir said the day-to-teach routine of teaching fourth graders is stressful because he often has to tell them to sit down and keep quiet, but he has no complaints about the TFA program itself. The real stress comes from school district politics.

“I’m only a first year teacher. You only get taken so seriously as a first year teacher,” he said. “I had so many ideas and so many ways to better manage time . little things to change throughout our school to better our kids dramatically. I kind of just get pushed aside because I’m a first-year. All of them do.”

A handful of GW students will become first-year teachers in the fall, when they will likely begin experiencing pitfalls and triumphs like Khadam-Hir’s. This year, 78 GW students have applied for Teach for America. By April 19, they’ll learn whether they’ve been accepted.

TFA partners with 1,098 schools nationwide, and last year there were 3,500 graduates placed as teachers in some of the country’s poorest schools. Working at a school like Tinsley is a real challenge, Khadam-Hir said, adding that unlike students at the middle-class school he attended while growing up in New Jersey, most fourth graders at Tinsley can “barely read.”

The only time Khadam-Hir ever felt overwhelmed was one day in October, when he was startled to receive a notice that his school was on security lockdown. He later learned a student had been murdered at a nearby high school.

“It ended up the kid’s brother and sister go to our elementary school,” he said. “That was probably when I thought I was in over my head, not just because it was in the neighborhood, but the kid’s siblings were people I could teach next year or the year after.”

Despite some frustrations, the highs of being a teacher outweigh the lows, Khadam-Hir said, and he prides himself on taming his homeroom class, which was composed of “a lot of the tough kids” as well as students with limited English proficiency. He described a student named James, who is attending fourth grade for the second time and had a rocky start to the school year. For the last three weeks, James has been in the hospital with brain bleeding. But before his hospitalization, the class took a practice version of the state-mandated writing test.

“I saw he had scored a perfect score on the multiple choice section, which is revising and editing other students’ packages. For this kid, this is crazy. It’s so insane. I was so happy. Visiting him in the hospital, he didn’t know what was going on, and just pulling out the test and showing him the score made his day, my day, his mom’s day.”

Khadam-Hir’s greatest goal is to push the importance of higher education on his students. Members of the class sit in groups at a few tables, and each table group has a different Ivy League school designated as its name.

“I’ll say ‘Harvard, go get your science journals.’ They know about the Ivy League. they’re pumped about it.” He says he shows students statistics that indicate how much more college graduates earn than high school graduates – a lesson they understand “even if it’s just planting the seed.”

Khadam-Hir was one of the 18 GW students who began working in TFA last year -118 had applied to the program. In 2005, 21 of 107 applicants went on to work in TFA. The program is so competitive because teaching is challenging work, and the organization only wants to accept the most qualified students into its ranks to ensure that they will be successful, said Sara Blasing, regional communications director for TFA.

Senior Sarah Castleman, who will teach high school English in Mississippi or Arkansas next year, said she first heard about the program as a freshman and has been thinking about it for a long time. She said part of what drew her to TFA was the program’s excellent marketing. “They know what they’re doing,” she said, adding that the program and its relatively low acceptance rate “attract people who are attracted to competitive environments.”

She said she loves working with kids and helped form a music education program at a school in Southeast and has worked at a community center in Adams Morgan.

Castleman said although she’s interested in teaching right now, she does not see herself making a career of it. “It gives me two years to figure out what I want to do next,” she said. “I might be teaching. I might not.”

Blasing said there is no particular “profile” of potential TFA members, adding that while the overwhelming majority of members have held campus leadership positions, its teachers come from a broad range of undergraduate majors.

Senior Daniel Balke will teach elementary school in the town of Gallup, N.M. or at a nearby Indian reservation. Balke, a native of New Mexico, said one of the primary reasons he applied for the program was so that he would have the opportunity to make a contribution to his home state.

He said though he has known about the program for several years, he had always “kind of admired it but never considered it for myself.” He had planned on attending graduate school next year and had even sent out three applications, but a TFA recruiter helped change his mind. Balke said the organization’s view of education as a tool for empowerment resonated with him, and he was particularly moved by TFA’s goal of eventually having 100 veterans of the program working as Congressional legislators.

“I’m thinking if a fourth of Congress members had spent time in low-income schooling, where would the priorities of our nation be? I want to be part of that movement, particularly the opportunity to do it in the home state of New Mexico where education is such a huge issue. The stars seemed to align.” After completing his TFA service, Balke said he wants to attend graduate school and then work in New Mexico politics.

While he’s looking forward to it he’s nervous about how prepared he will be for the program after his five weeks of summer TFA “boot camp” in Houston.

“There’s this tendency to romanticize the program and think ‘I’m going to. touch every kid right off the bat,'” Balke said. “I’ll admit, I still do romanticize it to some degree, but you just cannot prepare yourself. I am very realistic that this is going to be a challenging experience.”

Khadam-Hir said despite the challenges of teaching in a low-income community, he loves getting out of bed every morning because he knows his work is affecting students’ lives for the better.

“I know I’m going to a job where I make a difference, where little Ruby will make me smile in the morning, Gina will get me angry in the afternoon, but at the end of the day I know they’re both looking up to me and will do anything I ask them to do.”

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