gracetien

WASHINGTON — Grace Tien struggles daily with teaching social studies to Baltimore 2nd graders in an environment she describes as violent and depressing. But her year as a Teach for America corps member in one of the country’s worst school districts is also evidence, she said, that helping a few students is a “worthy investment.”

TFA received a record number of applicants this year for the corps member positions, hitting 57,000. The members are paid by school districts that have signed on to accept them and receive the same salary and health benefits as other beginning teachers in their districts.

With tens of millions of public funds and grants from corporations and foundations, TFA, founded in 1990, recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years. They are given special training in the summer to ensure they are well-prepared before they head to classrooms.  TFA’s goal is to close the achievement gap for struggling, at-risk students and creating leaders in education, policy or government who will create change at higher levels.

“We’ve seen our applicant pool grow over time as more people become aware of the problem of educational inequity and the opportunity Teach For America offers to tackle it,” said Kaitlin Gastrock, TFA managing director of regional communications.

Tien, a recent Wellesley College graduate, has been a corps member of Teach for America since last September. She said she separates fights daily in the classroom.

“I’ve had bloody noses and a lot of violence, even among very young kids,” said Tien, 23. “In some ways, it feels like you’re constantly in a war zone.”

She believes that her experience is more difficult than that of other corps members because of problems with the administration of her school and lack of support for students and teachers. She said several teachers left the school mid-year.

“Students throw computers out the window, smash them in front of the principal without fear,” Tien said. “They’re like, ‘You can’t do anything to us.’ They just know the principal won’t expel them. This principal oftentimes won’t suspend the students for behavior because high suspension rates are bad for the school and they reflect badly on the school and principal.”

But there have been rewarding moments, too. Tien notes that more than 80 percent of her students improved between one and 10 reading levels since she began teaching.

“There are definitely times when I wonder if I should start looking for a new job,” Tien said. “On the other hand, I do see this experience as a positive one because I have grown a lot from it even from the first half year. A lot of character development and character training.”

Gastrock said the economic downturn has inspired more people to think broadly about their career options and look for fields, such as education through TFA, in which they can make a “meaningful contribution.” Tien agreed, but said her initial interest working for TFA stemmed from her conviction to invest time in other people’s lives.

“I was thinking while I still have the time, and my attention wasn’t divided between having a family, then I can really focus my time and energy in investing in building relationships with the students and kids I’m working with,” said Tien.

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