At Teach for America, High Expectations Are a Way of Life for Students and Teachers
Katie Hayes is a lesson in contrasts. Her petite frame belies an ornery toughness that gets her through some very difficult days. Her soliloquies on the big, beautiful ideas such as educational success and empowerment are tempered by the realities of going into a classroom every day in order to “erase the achievement gap” in rural Arkansas. And while her 10th graders don’t always want to do the scholars’ cheer, she confesses it really cheers her up.
The scholar’s cheer?
Katie, a Teach for America teacher (TFA) and 2004 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict, leads her classes in this cheer before tests. She begins with “I expect the world from each and every single one of you every day.”
And her class responds, in unison, “I am a scholar. I work hard to achieve exemplary reading, writing and thinking. I will succeed in this classroom and in life.”
As you might expect, this doesn’t fit into her students’ definition of cool, but she asks them to do it anyway. “Guys,” she says, “just say it because you know it makes me feel happy.”
Teach for America is an Americorps program that recruits graduating college seniors to teach in some of the toughest schools in the nation for two-year stints. Most grads that join TFA are not education majors, but they are enthusiastic, zealous advocates of education and its power to transform lives. Hayes was a political science major and she started her two-year commitment last August on the Mississippi Delta region of eastern Arkansas. It is a landscape, says Katie, of cotton fields and poverty.
Hayes is no stranger to poverty and despair. As a student at CSB/SJU, she spent a semester studying overseas in South Africa. In fact, she says, the similarities between South Africa and rural Arkansas are disturbing.
You might expect to get a lot of vision/mission talk from Katie when talking to her about education, but she is more direct than that. Her work is all about goals and her classroom revolves around goals. Her objective is to “give all of [my] students an opportunity for excellent education. That’s the goal. I have to send my kids out of class sometimes because they are ruining my other kids’ opportunity for a great education. And everything I do is trying to give my kids the opportunity to succeed. That means motivating them.”
And sometimes, “that means challenging them to meet their grade level standards even if they are five years behind,” says Hayes.
Her daily goal—and thus the goal her students must take seriously—is for all students in class to reach 80 percent of the objectives established by the curriculum. Along with goals, the word “scholar” is part of the classroom vocabulary. “We are a room full of scholars,” says Katie, “we sit like scholars, we act like scholars.” That means students sit up straight with their feet on the floor and remain at their desk while class is being taught. This is a level of discipline, she says, that these students have not experienced before.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. In the first months, “there were days my seventh graders were so bad I cried for an hour at the end of the day,” says Hayes. Even so, when she unflinchingly declares that setting high expectations for student achievement is the only answer, it’s believable.
Motivating and disciplining students in the classroom may seem like a daunting challenge, but the TFA doesn’t stop there. Teachers such as Katie are also charged with involving the parents and families of students. She understands how busy parents are these days, but she wants to help them value education any way she can. She tells them, “Your child is absolutely capable of succeeding. They need to start working. They need to start doing their homework.”
Between challenging her 120 students, involving their parents and getting lesson plans together, Katie Hayes doesn’t have a lot of time for anything else. “It’s a little bit more than twice a full-time job,” she says. Even though the TFA organization prepared her for the first year of teaching by warning that it would be the toughest year of her life, she says it was still more difficult than she imagined.
When Katie is done (she may stay on for a third year), she will have a teaching license that will be accepted across the country, a $5,000 education credit and a very different perspective on life. She wants to pursue a career in education policy, law, or administration, and she will have a wealth of experience and leadership to bring with her into any position. The short list of the skills she has developed as a teacher in Arkansas includes creative problem solving, overcoming obstacles, leading people toward a common goal, morale building, managing people and resisting the impulse to quit.
What keeps her from giving up? The success of her students. For example, last semester, she had one student get a perfect 100 on a 10th grade World History exam. This semester, even after making the exams more difficult, she had five perfect scores in only a few weeks. “That’s what keeps me going, student improvement and achievement” says Hayes.