November 2, 2007

TFA takes U of C grads to front of classroom

Williams College graduate and pre-med Susan Kim preempted her eleven-year term at medical school with a detour into inner-city Los Angeles, teaching math at an urban high school.

Now an assistant professor in Cardiac Electrophysiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Kim spent two years working for Teach for America (TFA), a national organization that places recent college graduates into underserved urban and rural schools as teachers for two years.

“I was very worried and nervous about going back to school, especially with all these highly motivated former pre-meds who were rearing to go into med school,” Kim said. “But taking that time off gave me this incredible life experience and ended up increasing my motivation and interest and performance in medical school.”

Kim felt that the decision to attend medical school was influenced by her parents. But she said that she had harbored a strong interest in social justice since her first year, when she read Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House.

“I was very inspired by [Addam’s] social activism, and I think the combo of reading that book and feeling literally like I was in an ivory tower made me feel an urge to take some action.”

Moreover, she said the offer from Teach for America came at “a good, natural time to try something different.”

Founded in 1989 by Princeton University graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA strives to address the educational disparities that affect children in low-income communities. Once accepted into the corps, TFA members like Kim are run through a five-week training process, which includes workshops with TFA school district teachers on topics like lesson planning, classroom management, and particular academic subjects, according to David Ommen, the TFA recruitment director.

But the introductory program could not totally prepare Kim for the challenges—and rewards—she would encounter in the classroom.

“Teaching is a very demanding job,” Kim said, “and part of it is that you are accountable to five times 30 students every single day. You are there to perform and achieve something for them.” Kim was forced to address the question of how to motivate and manage students from the first day of classes, when she saw classrooms of students throwing objects at or completely ignoring their teachers.

For Kim, this commitment extended beyond normal classroom hours as well. Noting an absence of girls’ sports teams at her public school, Kim took on a coaching role for the girls’ softball, basketball, and soccer teams.

“I am no varsity athlete, but because no one else was there to do it, I thought, ‘Why not?’ What was so edifying was to see these girls, whose role otherwise in the school was just to be a pretty face,” Kim said.

Omenn suggested that U of C students have joined TFA in the past because “they recognize the fact that, of the 13 million students growing up in poverty in the United States, only half of them will graduate from high school…. And [University of Chicago] students see these disparities every day in Hyde Park.”

According to Ommen, many TFA applicants from the U of C have already tutored students through the Woodlawn tutoring and Neighborhood Schools Programs. He said TFA looks for students who have taken leadership roles on and off campus during their undergraduate years, because “good teaching often looks a lot like good leadership.”

Last year, 101 students from the University of Chicago—close to 10 percent of the graduating class—applied for TFA, and 19 were selected for the 2007 TFA corps, according to David Nachtweih, a TFA communications associate. Applications for this year’s graduating class are due Friday.