The Alternate Route
Teaching in Rural Mississippi
A Long Look Back, A Brief Glimpse Forward
Ben Guest Assignment: Write a summation of your Mississippi Teacher Corps experience in at least 1200 words.
Prologue: A Former Goal, A Pursued Reality
It was in ninth grade biology class that I first felt the call to teach. I had a teacher that was so incredibly passionate about education and his students that you couldn't not get excited about learning science. It didn't matter whether or not you even liked science; what mattered was the fact that the teacher cared, and for him you would do anything to meet his expectations. It was then that I knew I wanted to emulate what he did as best I could. I didn't just want to pour my love for science into test tubes and beakers; I wanted to inspire my passion for science in others.
I began my undergraduate studies as a secondary education major with a concentration in biology. However, I quickly decided that I wanted to learn as much science as I could at the time, so I just as quickly resolved myself to figuring out an alternate means of becoming a teacher in the future.
In my senior year, I did extensive research on alternate route teaching programs, and then applied to a select few. In the end I went with the Mississippi Teacher Corps. It had many things going for it, but offering a master's degree in education on full scholarship was what sold me; Mississippi Teacher Corps was a program for those that wanted to be teachers, not just an opportunity to pad a resume.
Chapter One: A Big Move, A Sleepless Summer
Less than two weeks after my degree was handed to me and my tassel was turned to the left, my car was packed with as much as she could hold, and I was on my way to Mississippi. I couch surfed with a nice couple in Virginia. We stayed up late talking about the differences between the north and the south. I told them that ultimately I thought I would like to live in Virginia, because it seemed like the best of both worlds. I stayed in a hotel as I passed through Nashville, thinking that I would get reimbursed for it, but Mississippi never fulfilled that promise. On the third day I arrived in Oxford, and as I unpacked and moved all of my things into a second floor apartment, I couldn't help thinking about how it was a wonder I hadn't yet passed out from the heat.
Just a few days later, after meeting countless new people and having to remember an endless assortment of new names, summer training started in full swing. I learned about lesson plans and classroom management, all things I had never even thought about, and I taught my first lesson. I hung onto my clipboard like the slightest falter in my grip would surely lead to my demise, but from there, with the help and guidance of those more experienced, I became an acceptable teacher.
Although each day during that summer felt like an eternity, surprisingly it seemed as though it had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Lesson planning consumed my life; sleepless nights became the expected. But then we were given a catfish dinner and a teaching certificate; the summer was over. At the time I remember thinking that it couldn't possibly get worse, that I couldn't possibly be more tired or more stressed. Alas, I was completely and entirely wrong.
Chapter Two: A New Job, A Stressful Challenge
I've been told by more than one source that my first year of teaching coincided with the worst year at the school in as long as anyone could remember. A long history of failing test scores and horrendous misspending of a limited budget, drove the decision for the state to take over our district, and with that came an incompetent conservator and an even more incompetent principal.
Looking back on it now, in some ways I liken it to the way in which a generation before my time might remember their country at war or in the midst of a depression, bleakness and disillusion becoming all consuming. There were fights, drug searches, and countless distractions from instructional time. There was a period of time where we were having an assembly almost every day, and these assemblies not only lacked a point, but at times could run several periods in length. During that first year, a principal was suspended for an unwarranted strip search of an entire class, a snack time was implemented right in the middle of fifth period, and a cafeteria brawl resulted in the expulsion of more than twenty students.
Through all of this, I did all that I could to hold it together within the confines of my classroom; chaos could be going on right outside the door, but I was determined to maintain an environment in which students could learn. Despite their deficits from inadequate science instruction in the past and the mess that was their school, my students really pulled it together. Sometimes more reluctantly than others, but they really did, and in the end they ended up collectively besting the state passing average on their SATP end-of-course exam. I couldn't have been more proud of their success.
Chapter Three: A Passed Torch, A Grand Journey
The second summer was significantly easier than the first, almost to the point where they are hardly comparable. My lessons were planned and I had a whole year's worth of experience. Granted, one year might not sound like a whole lot, but I was amazing at how much one could improve in a year. During that second summer I provided feedback and offered advice to the incoming class of teachers who were just as nervous and excited as I had been when I first arrived; there was an excitement in seeing my old apprehensions and aspirations reflected in the faces of a new crop of corps members. Although I enjoyed teaching and getting to know the incoming first years, I was very much relieved for a much needed break when the second years were dismissed from their duties at summer school.
To celebrate the completion of our first year of teaching, and quite possibly the most difficult year of our lives, Emily and I decided to hit the road on an epic, three week long journey west. We camped in the national parks and crashed on strangers' couches, all the while taking in some of the most spectacular sights offered by our country. Never having been west of the Mississippi prior to our trip, I saw and experienced things I had never encountered before. The breathtaking transition of changing landscapes and cultures is just not something you can experience from a plane, and I couldn't possibly have thought of a better way to revitalize myself after such a grueling and tumultuous year. Afterwards, I was refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of my second year.
Chapter Four: A Reformed Administration, A Successful School
In my first year of teaching I was apologized to twice by a member of the state department, a sincere apology offered for the atrocious conditions of my school, and with that apology came a promise to address the issue. Unlike the moving reimbursement that was promised to me, this one was fulfilled. A competent, caring conservator replaced our incompetent, detached one, and our extremely dedicated, hardworking lead teacher was promoted to the role of principal as our former fool of a principal and his paddle named "Beef Master" were sent packing. Things were certainly shaping up for our little school, and there was an air of hope, a hope that things would soon be better.
When the score reports came back from the state, that hope grew, grew to the point of almost bursting. Despite the conditions and the difficulties of the preceding year, our students did better than anyone had ever anticipated, and with their performance our school was moved to successful status. There was now no denying that with dedicated instruction and motivated students, great things could be achieved.
In my second year of teaching, I worked relentlessly revising my materials and methods of instruction. As our principal has stated on numerous occasions, "we aren't just going to be complacent with our successful status, we are going to build on it and surpass it." At this point, with less than thirty days before the state test, we are certainly in the home stretch, but even now, it is hard to tell how things will turn out. I know that I've done the best that I could, and the expectations are set exceptionally high. As has become the new norm, we hold on to that new hope that we will continue to improve, and in time we will truly excel.
Epilogue: A Bittersweet Goodbye, A Fresh Start
I gave an unbelievable amount of consideration to whether or not I would return for a third year, but ultimately I decided against it. I feel bad about my decision to leave for so many different reasons. I feel guilty about leaving the students when they so desperately need dedicated teachers, and I'll certainly miss the friends I've made along the way. I suppose I'm just not as good as one needs to be to properly work on the monumental task of easing the disparities in our education system over the long term, but in the end, it was just taking too much out of me to have to work so hard against a backlash of relentless student reluctancy and disrespect.
I have grown to be extremely passionate about education, and I just couldn't risk my love for teaching being stolen away from me under the crushing pressures and responsibilities of teaching in a disadvantaged and in many ways, broken, system. The past two years have been incredibly demanding. Oftentimes it has felt as though I was forcing my instruction upon the unwilling; as the old adage goes, "You can lead a horse to water..." The decision certainly wasn't easy, but I am ready to teach in a school where education is valued, a school in which I can refine my instructional methods as opposed to my classroom management.
I will be with the Mississippi Teacher Corps for at least one more summer, this time as a team teacher. I am thankful for the opportunity, and I hope that I can get a brand new group of teachers off to a great start. After that, I will begin teaching middle school science at the Chesapeake Academy in Irvington, VA. The school is amazing, and when I had the opportunity to guest teach a class for my interview, I couldn't have been more impressed with how knowledgable the students were.
Teacher Corps has taught me a number of skills that will benefit me in all future endeavors and I have created fond memories that I will carry with me forever. I am now ready to embark on the next chapter of my life, and in this new environment, I hope that my teaching can continue to grow and flourish.