UNC-Chapel Hill alumni face real-world tests in Teach for America classrooms

By Rachel Jones

LaDarian Smith was fed up.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in May of 2014, he was in his first few months of teaching 10th grade English at W.W. Samuell High School. At the Dallas Independent School District campus, 98.5 percent of the students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Reading proficiency hovered at 50 percent – 23 percent less than the state average.

And he had a student who would not, for the life of him, turn in his work.

“It was really easy for me to say, ‘oh, he doesn’t care,’ or ‘oh, he doesn’t want to be here,’ or things like that,” Smith said.

But the student did care. A conversation between the two would radically change the direction of Smith’s classroom.

“He was like ‘you keep saying I don’t want to be here, but don’t I come to class every day? If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here,’” Smith said. “And as simple as that statement is, I think that put it in perspective for me, because truancy was also a very real thing.”

A new mindset

After that, Smith started earnestly listening to his students — not just for test answers or roll calls, but for ideas on how he could help them. They reformatted his classroom participation grading system. Instead of deducting points for inattentiveness, they would all start at zero and earn participation points throughout the year. They helped pick quiz questions.

And almost immediately, they respected Smith a lot more.

“(Students) don’t care what you know until they know you care,” Smith said. “So I spent my first year in the classroom, after those three months of hell and high water, resetting.”

He reset with his 10th graders that year, and he carried that mentality into his 12th grade classroom the next year.

And then, as his students graduated, he left teaching permanently.

Smith was a part of the Teach for America, a program that recruits college students to teach in low-income communities across the country, placing them in these communities for a five-week boot camp that ends in getting a teacher’s license and a school assignment for two years.

He feels that he met the goals of the program — but that often means different things to the communities that TFA serves than it does to the students who participate in it.

A Carolina connection

There’s an Easter egg in the Teach for America website for UNC-CH students. In a subsection of a subsection of the JOIN TFA heading on the site’s homepage, there is an example resume for a college senior applying to the program. And there, under “Extracurricular Experience” and “Work Experience,” things begin to get familiar.

“Dance-a-thon, 24-hour dance marathon,” said Jacquelyn Gist, reading the resume off of her computer screen. She’s worked at UNC-CH’s University Career Services center for 26 years, and has been helping people apply to Teach for America for the better part of two decades. “I mean, what do you think that is? University newspaper, uh-huh. And then career center.”

It makes sense that a UNC-CH experience is used as the corps-provided template for TFA applicants. The founder of the corps spoke at UNC-CH’s spring commencement in 2006. The University first appeared on TFA’s list of schools with the largest incoming corps classes in 2008, and has consistently stayed there since – the program has partnered with N.C. schools since 1990, when it established a presence in the Eastern region of the state. But despite 28 years of partnership in the state, there are still some misunderstandings between program and community, and questions about who, exactly, TFA is teaching for.

UNC and back again

The resume on TFA’s website isn’t LaDarian Smith’s, but they’re both clearly products of UNC-CH.

Where the sample says Dance-a-thon, newspaper and fraternity, Smith’s says Black Student Movement, Carolina Union Activities Board and UNC Red Cross; where it says University Career Center and Communications Office, Smith’s says Orientation Leader and Office Assistant at Morrison Residence Hall. But while the sample stops in 2016 — “they’re still using that one?” Smith said when told about the sample UNC-CH resume — Smith’s has extended past the University and back again.

Smith, an English major, started a relationship with TFA during in 2013, the first year that TFA piloted an early-admittance program that allowed juniors to apply. Smith, then a junior, was encouraged by the job security TFA offered and by honest discussions of the workload with corps members he trusted: a former UNC Black Student Movement president and a resident advisor in his dorm. But, he initially didn’t believe in the program’s promises.

“I just didn’t buy the entirety of bringing in college students and them teaching right after they graduated if they hadn’t majored in education,” he said. “It just was not computing for me that this program could be as impactful and as successful as it has. But I mean, it’s been 28 years and the organization is still around, so obviously something is going right.”

Nevertheless, he applied to the corps. He also applied to a job as a campus campaign coordinator — “which is a pretty watered-down version of what I do now as a recruiter” — and found out that he had been accepted for both within the span of a week.

Beyond the classroom

After the end of his two-year commitment in Dallas, he applied to be a recruiter at UNC-CH, and has been in the role for a year and a half.

One of the students that Smith recruited is Katie Arney, a senior public policy and sociology major who’ll be teaching middle schoolers in Houston after graduation. Arney wants to eventually go into education policy and research, and believes that classroom experience is essential to this career path.

“A lot of different programs are focused on keeping people in the classroom, and while I’m not opposed to that — it could be that I do my time in the corps and absolutely love the classroom — I wanted something that was going to encourage me to take my knowledge and experience and apply it in a way that can make change be out of the classroom,” she said.

Despite loving his job, Smith harbors some reservations about the program.

“I’m still not drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said. “Teaching is something that you have to grow into. It’s something that you don’t get the hang of the first two, three, four years, really.”

The drawback to this is that TFA is a two-year program. According to a 2014 study by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, approximately 10 percent of teachers who were trained through TFA return for their fifth year of teaching, compared to 76 percent of teachers who were trained through a UNC system undergraduate program.

But on average, TFA teachers outperform their UNC-system education major peers, and have “significantly greater odds” of being scored proficient on N.C.’s five professional teaching standards.

Smith sees this as a result of the program’s mission, but he thinks that that mission isn’t what the public perceives it as.

“I think there’s some brand misalignment, not necessarily on our end, but with people who come to the table,” he said. “But I do take it seriously, my job to find people that I think would thrive at this, and then task them with taking what they’ve learned and becoming lifelong advocates. And if that’s staying in the classroom, great. I’m not going to come and kick you out. But if you do decide that your impact is better suited elsewhere, then go for it.”

Edited by Mimi Tomei