Teach for America training starts in Philly

Teach for America's first day of lessons. Vincent Capone stands to read. The training course lasts five weeks.
Teach for America's first day of lessons. Vincent Capone stands to read. The training course lasts five weeks.
Posted: July 02, 2010

In an oppressively hot classroom decorated with inspirational slogans and a broken clock stuck at 3 p.m., the latest crop of Teach for America recruits forged through the first day of training Monday, propelled by idealism, uplifted by call-and-response choruses, and hydrated by copious supplies of bottled water.

"We're going through this entire volume in five weeks," marveled Andrew Brooks, holding the three-inch-thick instruction manual dubbed the Big Green Monster.

Over the next five weeks, Brooks will receive a crash course in how to be an exemplary teacher.

The 23-year-old graduated from Brandeis University, where he double-majored in economics and history. After graduation and a year working for a property-management firm in New York, he felt the need to do more with his life than "just make money," he said, so he joined the record 46,000 applicants to the competitive TFA program and was among the elite 12 percent accepted.

This is the 20th anniversary for the nonprofit program, which places bright, young college graduates in urban and rural public schools for two-year commitments. It is the fifth year that Philadelphia has hosted one of the eight regional training institutes.

From TFA's inception, think tanks and educators have debated its cost effectiveness and the benefits to students when non-teachers are trained for a short-term commitment. But if any corps members had doubts about TFA's success, the first day of training was designed to squelch them for good.

"You must own what happens in your classroom," exhorted one instructor, an intense young woman in a business suit, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her voice straining to be heard over the thicket of oscillating fans, rattling like cattails. There will be no tolerance for finger-pointing, she said, no blaming outside factors - poverty, poor parenting, lack of resources - that conspire to drag children down.

"The bottom line," she repeated throughout the morning: "Teachers are what matter."

Later, Brooks attended a class led by Marni Greenstein, a TFA staff member who teaches middle school in Washington. Above the blackboard she had taped a large banner saying "Student Achievement There's an App for That!"

To convey their seriousness of purpose, all corps members adhere to a professional dress code. By noon, though, Brooks had loosened his tie and rolled up his white shirtsleeves.

He listened carefully as Greenstein explained that she would be modeling best teaching practices during her lesson. She allotted four minutes for everyone to read a passage from the instruction manual about goal-setting and then "share out" - TFA parlance for speaking to the rest of the class - their reactions.

When she asked if anyone had ever made a New Year's resolution and kept it, Brooks, brushing back his curly hair and pushing back the glasses that had slipped down his nose, raised his hand.

"I resolved to lose 25 pounds, and I've lost 30," he said, to approving murmurs.

The long first day ended with a welcoming ceremony in the Baptist Temple on Temple University's campus. Groups of corps members who had already started to bond with one another were herded into their respective geographical territories. Rhode Island's teachers, stage right, reserved a seat for their mascot - a massive teddy bear.

Corps members awaiting their assignments to Philadelphia schools filled the rows halfway up the center of the auditorium.

Timothy Castanza, a recent graduate of St. Joseph's University, sat beside his new colleagues from the University of Florida, Notre Dame, and Washington and Lee.

"I was a little nervous this morning," Castanza said. "But I'm very happy now that I know that Teach for America is going to support us more than we thought. I was afraid we were just going to be thrown into the fire."

Castanza, who has been told he will be working with special-education students in the fall, had just learned that this summer he will be student-teaching ninth-grade English at Martin Luther King High School.

"It's a fun time. There's a sense of anticipation," he said, grinning. "I don't know if I'll be saying the same thing next week at this time."

Several TFA leaders popped up around the auditorium and started a now-familiar call and response. "WE ARE!" they shouted. In unison, the new recruits hollered back: "HARD CORE!"

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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