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Teaching (For) America: Honors Grads Give Back

This fall, four recent Honors graduates will be heading back to the classroom—not as students, but as part of Teach For America’s 2012 teaching corps. Katelyn Halpern (’09, English), Samantha Walker (’11, English), Diego Lopez (’12, History and French), and Joehan Garcia (’12, English) will be first-time teachers, but they bring to their classrooms an Honors education and the desire to make an impact.

Teach For America (TFA) sends recent graduates into underserved and urban classrooms and aims to change the face of public education by recruiting the best college graduates, fresh from their studies, to commit to teaching for two years. TFA believes that by bringing intelligent young people face-to-face with some of the problems rampant in the school system—poverty, achievement gaps, limited resources, and inequality—they will be inspired to go on and effect change at a higher level, whether they continue to teach or not. A program with lofty ambitions for social reform, it isn’t surprising that it attracts young people with similar goals.

“I’m interested in issues of social justice and rural public health,” said Samantha Walker, who will be stationed in Oklahoma City teaching high school English. “I want to teach for at least four or five years, and then look into graduate programs where I can study public health issues on a larger scale.”

Katelyn Halpern, who will be teaching secondary English in Newark, New Jersey, has worked as a writing coach and a choreography teacher, but had no formal ambitions to be a classroom teacher prior to becoming involved in TFA. She, too, was attracted by the opportunity to make a difference. “The combination of teaching and social justice work appealed to me, so I jumped in.”

Rather than the traditional teacher certification process, many successful TFA applicants take an alternate route to the classroom, usually through emergency or alternative certification. This program is followed by 50 hours of independent work, including ten hours of classroom observation, and a five-week TFA summer institute, or “boot camp.” 

Though TFA is sometimes criticized for putting teachers into classrooms without any formal training, Samantha believes this is one of the program’s strengths. “I didn’t have to major in education. I majored in English, a subject I am passionate about, and got to cultivate different interests.” Those interests included coursework in the Medicine & Society minor—classes she credits with influencing her commitment to social justice. 

Joehan Garcia, who began her studies as a communications major, called her decision to be a teacher “a complete redirection.” The change of course was inspired by Honors political science professor Jeremy Bailey, her Human Situation instructor, who pointed out her aptitude for interpreting a text and for commanding a room. Joehan changed her major to English literature and set her sights on teaching. “My teachers and parents have always kept me on track, and pushed me along. I see teaching as a way of repaying that investment in me.”

Joehan, a first-generation American, is excited to begin at Houston’s Madison High School in the fall, where she will be teaching junior and senior English. She sees high school teachers as instrumental in helping students make decisions about whether and where to go to college, and she hopes to help other first-generation students navigate the difficult college application process. “TFA’s target group is my group. Their goal of teaching at-risk youth aligns perfectly with mine.”

Diego Lopez, who also begins his TFA tenure in Houston, shares Joehan’s sentiments. “Being a minority, I fall into the demographic that TFA is trying to help, so I feel a real responsibility to give back.” Diego will be teaching in a 5th grade bilingual program at Davila Elementary, and anticipates that roughly half of his lessons will be in Spanish.

While teaching has always been part of Diego’s career plans, he is pleased with the placement support offered by Teach For America and believes that the program has opened a lot of doors. “The TFA name has some clout. It helps get you interviews with schools. I had two interviews my first day, and was offered a job on the spot.” 

The recognition of four Honors graduates by a prestigious program like Teach For America may come as no surprise to those who have always known Honors students were among the best. However, Dean Bill Monroe noted that TFA’s selection of four Honors alumni this year is nevertheless unprecedented. “Traditionally, students selected for Teach For America, like those selected for nationally competitive scholarships, attend Ivy League universities or elite liberal arts colleges. It’s a real mark of distinction for the students accepted to this highly competitive program,” he said.  “Just as we would be proud of a Rhodes or Marshall Scholar, we are proud of Katelyn, Samantha, Diego, and Joehan.”