Thursday, September 10, 2009
Teach for America
By SUE WATSON
A group of five new teachers have brought new life to Walthall Street in Holly Springs.
The new teachers are all with Teach For America, an AmeriCorps Program, and they have rented one house opposite Holly Springs High School as their headquarters in this beautiful antebellum city.
The five are all from communities outside the South and they are here to be the best teachers they can be while serving Teach For America.
Alice Magill, teaching fifth grade inclusion at the Intermediate School, graduated with a degree in psychology and classical studies from Northwestern University in Chicago. She’s from Potomac, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. - a city girl.
Perhaps it is the contrast that drew her to the rural South. She likes the friendliness here and has become comfortable with the culture fairly quickly.
“People say hi to you,” she said. “In terms of language, I really have to adjust to saying ‘yes, Ma’am’ and ‘yes, Sir.’ ”
The five were first located in Oxford, then on their first day on the job in Holly Springs, the group decided to visit some realtors to look for a place to rent.
“We walked into Callicutt Realty and our landlord was living in this house but was going to sell,” Magill said. “So, he vacated his house and rented it to us for two years.”
The five new teachers were strangers until about a month ago.
The two-story house on Walthall facing the high school has five bedrooms and plenty of space. It is a beautiful antebellum home owned by Harris Gholson. The new teachers love living in an antebellum home and in a city with so many of them.
On weekends the new teachers find lots of things to do, sometimes going back to Oxford.
Magill said she loves running around town (four of the five new teachers are runners or joggers), and she looks forward to eating in local spots like Michael's Creole and Phillips Grocery. There is something magnificant about running on streets lined with antebellum homes, she said.
She has visited Memphis a couple of times and wants to explore Wall Doxey State Park and other places.
“We’re excited about the hummingbird festival coming up (September 11-13),” Magill said. “Everything is welcoming and warm and the generosity of spirit is refreshing.”
Because Teach For America is a member of AmeriCorps, teachers are eligible to receive loan forbearance and interest payment on qualified student loans, as well as an education award at the end of each year of service. The education award may be used toward future educational expenses or to repay qualified student loans.
Teachers have to complete a number of required professional development hours and meet with learning teams to discuss best practices and share strategies to improve their teaching, she said.
The teachers also attended a five-week teacher training program in Houston, Texas, during the summer.
Magill said most of the teachers in her group listed the Mississippi Delta as a place they wished to teach and experience the lifestyle.
But in the short time she’s been in the North Mississippi Hills area, she has definitely felt excitement and adventure. Magill is the younger child in a family of four (including parents).
Her parents are thrilled, even though they are a little disappointed she did not locate near her hometown area after college. They are coming to visit her Labor Day weekend.
From Plain City, Ohio, and a 2008 graduate of Ohio State University with a major in athletic training, Andrew Walsh said Teach For America resembles the alternate teaching certification route used in Mississippi Teacher Corps.
After graduation he worked the 2008-09 year as an athletic trainer in a high school in Columbus, Ohio, where he helped with basketball, baseball, and softball as well as athletic training.
“I enjoyed working in that atmosphere and I wanted to teach, so I was looking for an alternate route and came across Teach For America,” Walsh said. “It’s nice to be a certified teacher and athletic trainer; it helps with job opportunities.”
He has experienced no culture shock coming to Mississippi. He grew up in rural Ohio, a farming community that is also changing in terms of employment. Plain City just got its second stop light and is a lot like Holly Springs in terms of size and school population.
He has lived in a group or big house - having roomed with seven men while a senior in college. It was fun, he said.
And living with four other teachers in Holly Springs definitely helps with the rent and cuts down on expenses, Walsh said. Group living requires one to be respectful of the opinions and privacy and space of others, he said.
As a new teacher, there is a steep learning curve the first few years, he said.
The new teacher has to get course content organized and definitely spends late hours in preparation for class, he said. There is an opportunity to impact so many students each day.
“It’s a part of the job,” said Walsh. “I think next year will be easier.”
As a group, the teachers are sharing daily experiences and feeling empathetic with each other.
“I’m real excited to be here and enjoy my interactions with students and staff and look forward to meeting the community,” said Walsh.
As a runner, he prefers sprints and practices 100-yard dashes after school at the practice field. He is the third-born of four children and has two brothers and a sister.
Walsh is teaching geometry and trigonometry/precalculus at the high school.
A graduate of George Washington University with a double major in English and history, Miriam Keil (pronounced Kyle), is from Henderson, North Carolina.
During college she was already thinking of spending a year or two in a service corps after college and settled on Teach For America.
Henderson is a high poverty town of about 18,000 souls and the school system has a high dropout rate as does Mississippi.
“There is lot of promise there and great things are happening as well,” she said.
Her parents had thought about becoming missionaries and a sister attended seminary earning a master’s in theology and will marry a minister.
So service to others is something Keil has thought about. She interned with an environmental group (nonprofit) while in college.
The youngest of three children, she’s lived in the South most of her life after her family moved to the South from Ohio when she was seven years of age.
Her dad worked as an engineer for General Electric Corporation in Virginia. The whole family continues its southerly migration, she said.
Keil finds Holly Springs “most esthetically pleasing,” and enjoys the beauty in Oxford, as well, calling it the “Mecca of the South.”
“I find it to be a very welcoming community and I love old homes and the new and exciting change happening in school with so many new teachers and administrators,” she said.
There is a sense of possibility, she said.
She’s a runner, taking to the streets almost every day.
She is teaching seventh grade world history at the junior high school.
Coming from the Mid-West - Lincoln, Nebraska - and as a graduate of Valparaiso University in Northern Indiana, Cody Stephenson is definitely experiencing culture shock. He earned a degree in political science and French and minored in classic civilization.
In January of this year, he decided to join Teach For America because his college training placed great emphasis on community and society.
From a city of about one-quarter million people to Holly Springs, a community of about 8,000, is a big leap. His hometown had six high school campuses.
Stephenson said he is comfortable in the small community but was not prepared to have to drive so far to get somewhere.
He is enjoying yardwork and practical hands-on things and the antebellum houses in Holly Springs.
He was bucking for a challenge and found it.
“Teaching is a huge challenge, itself, and trying to make it in a new culture is fun from the take-off,” he said.
An only child of parents who had four siblings, and the grandson of Lutheran missionaries to Guyana, Stephenson said he feels some of the missionary spirit.
“My grandparents made such a huge impact, and it is hard to follow their footsteps,” he said. “This is a wonderful place.”
As newcomers, the five graduates will be entertaining their friends and family coming from different parts of the nation to visit. They will show off what Holly Springs has to offer, Stephenson said.
He said the five teachers have decided to live in one house for a good reason.
“We all decided to live together because we are each other’s best resources,” he said. “We have three math teachers, two social studies teachers and two inclusion (special education) teachers all living together.”
Stephenson, who is teaching seventh grade math inclusion in junior high, said he used to be a runner but has not kept at it.
“I’m the one in the house who eats all the junk food,” he said. “I could be in better shape.”
The only one of the five teachers not teaching in Holly Springs, Kristi Michaels teaches fifth grade math at Independence Middle School in Tate County.
She is originally from Aurora, Ohio, near Cleveland and earned a bachelor’s in political science and sociology from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
Aurora was once a rural community but now is more like a suburb, she said. She is one of two children and has only two first cousins.
After graduation, Michaels spent one year in community service with AmeriCorps working for Habitat for Humanity in Biloxi and New Orleans. And she taught one year in Marble Falls, Texas, working in an outdoor school where half the curriculum is experiencing and learning about the environment and the other half is academics. Classes were held indoors only during bad weather.
She learned about Teach For America from two friends who entered the program and reported good experiences.
“My philosophy in life is to challenge myself to be a part of the change,” she said. “I want to see changes happen and a lot of great things are already happening. I want to be a part of that experience.”
Community service was a large part of Michaels’ college experience and she is reaching for change.
“I think this has the potential to change me and the students,” she said. “We want to be a part of seeing our students succeed and achieve.”
Teach for America believes every student can learn and the ultimate goal is to prepare more students for a successful college experience, Michaels said.
“I think we all came from backgrounds where we were given opportunities to lead us to where we are and we had parents who pushed for our education. We have an opportunity to push our new students in similar ways.”
Michaels played soccer in college and likes jogging to stay in shape.
She loves the change she has stepped into.
“I love my school, my administration, co-workers and my students,” she said.
Any potential for culture shock has been diminished by the hospitality extended, she said.
“Our realtors and the landlord are great, as is this community,” Michaels said. “I am finding everyone is friendly in the South.”
She had done some community service work while in college and then fell in love with the South and was inspired by people who came back from disaster to recreate a sense of community (Hurricane Katrina victims).
Michaels said she likes the stability and beauty of Southern communities she’s lived in.
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