The first time Michael Johnston ’97 left his classroom to go to the bathroom, one of his students took out a toxic board cleaner and sprayed “F**k you” all over the bulletin board.
“The first two weeks, I definitely became anaesthetized to a good degree of chaos,” Johnston said. “I was so exhausted. But it was that kind of exhaustion where you feel like the work you’re doing is really valuable.”
Johnston now recruits at Yale for Teach for America. Telling the stories of his two years teaching in Mississippi, Johnston has helped Teach for America garner 94 applications from Yale this year — up from 43 last year. With a graduating class of about 1,300, Yale has one of the highest percentages of students applying to Teach for America in the country, Johnston said.
As Yalies prepare to commit to the program, which trains newly graduated students and places them in under-resourced schools for two-year teaching jobs, Johnston’s enthusiasm exists alongside criticisms that the program gives insufficient training and places teachers in situations they are not prepared to handle.
Johnston said he loved teaching at the Greenville, Miss., high school, even when it was difficult, because he could always see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But for Jacqueline Ruppert ’01, a Teach for America teacher in the Bronx, that light has been nearly extinguished by resentful fellow teachers, students with little desire to learn, and a lack of support from the New York Teach for America program office.
As dozens of Yalies interview for Teach for America positions in the coming month, Ruppert cautions them to make sure they know what they are getting themselves into.
Holding on to idealism
Idealism seems to be a hallmark of the students who apply for Teach for America positions.
“After four years of exploration, I want to do something constructive,” said Andrew Duff ’02, one of 16 Yalies already accepted to Teach for America. “Compassionate teachers set me on the path to Yale — maybe I can be that teacher for some of my students.”
Johnston, whose book about his two years in Mississippi will be published this fall, said he recognizes that it is possible for Teach for America teachers with such bright optimism to become disillusioned.
“You run the risk of taking idealistic kids and putting them in disheartening situations [that] squelch idealism instead of cultivating it,” Johnston said. “But I don’t think that’s happened much.”
Teach for America spokeswoman Melissa Golden said 60 percent of Teach for America corps members go on to pursue careers in education. And of the remaining number, 70 percent have said their jobs in some way relate to improving opportunities for people in low-income communities.
But Ruppert said that not only does she feel powerless to make lasting change, she feels that she is doing her students a disservice by having had only a few months of summer training.
“It didn’t prepare me at all when I’ve had kids biting other kids, or — one day I wasn’t there — trying to attack another kid with a pair of scissors,” Ruppert said.
Ruppert said she is witnessing the problems of the American educational system magnified through the lens of everyday experience, and that the problems seem ever worse.
But Johnston said that being able to attach names and faces to the ominous “American educational crisis” was inspirational rather than disheartening.
“There’s always one or two glimmers of hope in each day,” Johnston said. “There are always two or three kids, even though there is chaos in the whole room, who are sitting in the front row trying so hard to listen.”
Nationally, the number of applications to Teach for America have nearly tripled, from 4,946 to about 14,000, said Erin Tunney, a Teach for America spokeswoman.
Teach for America Eastern Recruitment Director Greg Wong said part of the overall rise can likely be attributed to factors like the sluggish economy and an increased national movement toward service after Sept. 11.
“[But] when we compare our program to other programs nationally, the Peace Corps and grad schools, their applications have risen about 40 percent and ours have risen about 180 percent,” Wong said.
Wong said Teach for America has made an effort to increase its recruiting efforts and has revamped its materials and Web site.
Johnston’s ability to lay out all the gritty facts about the challenges of Teach for America while retaining his enthusiasm about the experience is one of the reasons so many Yalies applied this year, Wong said.
Wong said Yale’s applicant pool is exceptional even in a year of unprecedented applications. Although Teach for America offers interviews to only 36 percent of applicants nationwide, Wong said 85 of the 94 Yale applicants received interview offers.
Preparing for frustration
Ruppert said she thinks one of the problems with Teach for America is that she was not adequately prepared for many of the challenges she now faces. For example, she did not anticipate acrimonious relationships with her administrators and fellow teachers.
“It’s divide and conquer; they pick out one person and try to get you rattled,” Ruppert said. “Constantly, in meetings, they make snide remarks about ‘Just because you’re educated doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach, doesn’t mean you can relate to these students.'”
And the Teach for America program office does little to help her, Ruppert said. She said that when she asked her program director to sit in on a meeting with her principal, he said he didn’t think it would be appropriate.
The New York regional office did not return phone calls this week, but Golden said the role of the program directors is primarily to offer guidance rather than to provide more direct help.
Johnston said he also confronted skepticism from the teachers he was working with, but found he could diffuse the tension by asking their advice.
Despite the trials of her everyday task, Ruppert said she has heard veterans like Johnston liken the first year to boot camp and say that it does get easier. Ruppert said she hopes she gets the hang of it before her two years at the Bronx elementary school are over.
Allan Roth ’02 is one of the Yalies who has committed his next two years to Teach for America. He said he chose to go to rural Louisiana because he wanted a place with a strong sense of community, but that he may be treated as an outsider since he will be a middle-class Jew in a predominantly black school.
But after he spoke with the optimism characteristic of Teach for America corps members, saying “in the classroom, that’ll be my realm,” Roth added that he has no idea how hard his next two years will be.
“All I know is that it’s going to be more difficult than I could possibly imagine,” Roth said.