Teaching the dream

JuDonn DeShields spent his downtime last spring dreaming about closing the education gap in America. Now the GW alumnus is achieving that goal as a special education teacher at a charter school several blocks from campus.

DeShields is one of 65 GW graduates who joined Teach for America this year. The nonprofit organization places college graduates as teachers in underserved school districts, accepting 65 out of the 240 GW applications it received in 2008 – a record for the University and about double the national average student acceptance rate.

“Students interested in solving the nation’s greatest injustice” are Teach for America’s top recruits, said Thomas Clark, the organization’s recruitment director at GW.

Many factors go into the process of deciding which applicants are best qualified to join the Teach For America family. Grades, community involvement, clubs and outside experiences are all weighed into the final decisions, Clark said.

Colonial Cabinet, the Multicultural Student Services Center, the Office of Community Service and Alternative Spring Break are among the student organizations sending members to Teach For America, Clark said.

Interactive: Recent GW grads with Teach for America

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“Since teachers will be placed into areas that demand high levels of effort and efficiency,” he said, “Teach for America tries to find the most well-rounded individuals possible.”

Clark added that the University’s location could contribute to its high acceptance rate.

“It doesn’t matter which Metro you get on or where you get off, you’ll see a school district that needs help,” Clark said. “Teach For America provides students with a hands-on opportunity to make an impact right away after college.”

Many corps members share the common goal of reforming America’s education system.

“With teaching you can create tangible results and the only obstacle is yourself. You walk into the classroom and make things happen,” said Alex Horowitz, a 2008 graduate and corps member teaching special education at Bethel High School in Vallejo, Calif.

When asked why he chose Teach For America over the traditional route of becoming a teacher, he said, “With TFA you can be part of a large network. It is far less isolating than just moving to a city and getting a teaching job while taking classes.”

Last year Time magazine featured 2007 graduates Daniel Balke and Shelly Jain for their work with Teach For America. The two teachers described the benefits of motivating students through improvisation – from offering leadership roles to rewarding correct answers with a slice of pizza.

But corps members said it takes a lot of hard work to achieve any results.

“I learned quickly over the summer that teaching is rewarding and fulfilling and I love to do it, but it’s far from glamorous,” DeShields said. “You have to be serious about the cause to be an effective corps member. The ‘prestige’ isn’t enough to carry you.”

Former corps members also play large roles in the D.C. education community. One in 10 principals is a corps alumnus, as well as Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

“I think a lot can be said about GW and D.C. helping myself and other alumni to become socially conscious individuals,” DeShields said. “I think that’s why you see a lot of (Teach for America) applications.”

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