Ten minutes into Tuesday morning, the seventh-graders are almost ready for gym class. Deborah Frankel ’06, an English teacher at Katherine Brennan School in New Haven, stands with a timer in her hand, waiting on one slowpoke. The student, who has a bag strapped across her shoulder despite the “no backpacks in class” rule, is getting ready to talk back to her teacher.
She opens her mouth, only to close it again. Frankel smiles knowingly, and thanks her student for exhibiting self-control. Though Frankel is in only her second year of teaching for Teach for America, she looks like a veteran, with a lanyard around her neck, photocopied papers in one hand and coffee in the other.
For Frankel, picking Teach For America over a job on Wall Street — and choosing to teach in New Haven over New York City — was a question of social justice. Helping lower-income, minority schoolchildren bridge the achievement gap that separates them from their white, middle-class peers was more important to her than raking in the big bucks at a prestigious consulting firm, she said.
“Connecticut has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in working on behalf of other people and bettering inadequacies that I’ve observed.”
Problems in the education system are strongly related to the state’s problems in crime, poverty and unemployment, and represents one of the biggest socioeconomic challenges facing Connecticut, said Mark Porter Magee, director of communications and research for the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now.
Teach For America came to New Haven in 2006 in hopes of remedying the problem, and subsequently expanded to Bridgeport and Hartford.
With a philosophy based on the idea that educational inequity is “our nation’s greatest injustice,” TFA offers recent college graduates and young professionals a two-year commitment to teaching in low-income public schools across the country.
“It’s easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Frankel said.
Despite the intensive training she completed the summer after senior year, Frankel said she was very overwhelmed in her first year of teaching. She said the beginning of the year was especially challenging, as the students who entered her class came in with a very wide range of academic proficiency.
Fellow TFA teacher Amy Pescosolido, who works at Katherine Brennan School with Frankel, said no amount of statistics documenting the achievement gap could have prepared her for the experience of watching a seventh grader use his fingers to solve addition problems.
“It brings a whole new meaning to the word urgency,” said Pescosolido, who graduated from Providence College in 2006.
For Frankel, New Haven was an ideal place to pursue a social justice mission. It has many of the problems common to American cities, but its smaller size makes it more conducive to change, she said.
“New Haven is such a small town where everybody knows everybody,” said Frankel, who lived in Ezra Stiles College as an undergraduate. “We are all pushing for the right thing.”
Likewise, Emily Barton, the executive director of the Connecticut branch of TFA, said quick and swift change is a more tangible reality in New Haven than New York City, because of its smaller population and level of civic engagement.
Frankel said one of the greatest difficulties teachers face is shooting for the middle, when there are students who require extra help and others who need extra challenges. She still believes in setting big goals, and to this end she compares her teaching plans to curriculums used by public schools in Greenwich, one of the most affluent towns in the state. The walls of her seventh-grade classroom are covered in vocabulary words like “memoir” and “genre.”
But Frankel said she is also realistic about how much she will be able to change. Teachers do what they can to lead students to academic success, but it is ultimately up to students to learn, she said.
In contrast, popular culture tends to depict student-teacher relationships in oversimplified ways, Frankel said. Movies focus too much on how teachers are changed by the job, rather than how students are changed by their education.
“I think films and books romanticize the teacher with a savior complex,” she said.
That is not to say that Frankel has not found it rewarding to watch her students learn. She recalled a moment when she was teaching conjunctions to her class and she felt a “powerful click” of realization that every student was engaged in the learning process.
It is these moments, along with her lifelong interest in social justice, that caused Frankel to decide to stay in public education after her TFA commitment ends in a year. Pescosoido also said she plans to work in urban education in the future.
Magee said 60 percent of TFA teachers stay in education after finishing their original two-year pledge.
But David Nachtweih, communications associate for TFA, said the program is also attractive to graduates who are not interested in a career in teaching, because it has partnerships with top graduate schools and employers in business, law, and health care.
“TFA is not just about teachers,” Magee said. “It’s also about investing in a new core of innovative educators, future principals, and so forth.”
The need for new teachers is especially acute because many teachers from the Baby Boom generation will retire in the next five years, Nachtweih said.
Whether or not they plan careers in teaching, top college graduates are an asset to the education system because they bring subject area expertise to the classroom, Magee said. For instance, Frankel, an English major at Yale, is now teaching English to seventh and eighth graders.
With the right instruction, support and systematic changes, Frankel believes her students can achieve academic success.
“It is so absolutely clear to me — having met my students and [seen] their capabilities — this achievement gap can be closed,” she said.