Matt Jennings ‘09 saw the DePauw T-shirt on the wall in his classroom as nothing more than a memento of his college days, much like a picture on a desk. No one had worn it in months.
On any other day, it would remain hanging on the wall in Jennings’s classroom, where he teaches ninth-grade English to the students of a small college preparatory academy in Houston. But while it hung there, gathering dust with time, the shirt was not ignored.
An odd opportunity came for students to break their usual khakis-and-polo dress code and wear a T-shirt representing their favorite college. Dave Young, one of Jennings’s students and a player for the academy’s football team, asked if he could borrow it for the day, eager to show his Tiger pride.
Jennings recalls this as one of many powerful moments as a part of the Teach for America program.
“For ninth-graders, college can seem very far away. I want to get them excited,” he said. “Every day I have some kind of moment [like that].”
Small school, big numbers
Jennings is one of 25 members of the 2009 graduating class currently in the TFA Corps.
By committing to TFA, members commit to teaching for two years at one of 39 urban and rural regions across the country as a full-time employee of the school district, receiving the same salaries and benefits as other beginning teachers.
DePauw might not be listed among names like University of Michigan, Cornell University and Duke University as top contributors to the program, but Kaitlin Gastrock, regional communications director for TFA, said the figure is still impressive.
The top contributors list for 2009 was based only on the number of corps members graduating from a particular school rather than the percentage of the graduating class. No Indiana schools were among top contributors in 2009.
Gastrock said approximately 12 percent of DePauw’s graduating class entered the corps in 2009, the highest percentage in the state of Indiana that year, followed by Notre Dame University with 9 percent.
Relatively high numbers of graduates entering the program have been a recent norm for DePauw in TFA history.
The ’09 graduating class alone accounts for a quarter of the total number of DePauw graduates throughout TFA’s 20-year history, and the previous four years together account for about another half. DePauw has sent nearly three quarters of its TFA-graduates in the last five years.
This pattern coincides with TFA’s growth as a program. Gastrock said the program has been growing steadily over the last 20 years. Their expansion has increased awareness of TFA and its work, she said, making more people interested to apply.
According to Gastrock, the size of the corps has more than doubled in the last five years, rising to over 46,400 from 17,300 in 2005.
With only seven corps members in 2010, however, DePauw was not among the top contributors. The number was also the university’s lowest in several years.
The total number of DePauw students entering TFA for the upcoming academic year will be unknown until final applications are processed, but seven applicants have already committed their next two years to the program, according to Gastrock’s most recent data.
Prepared through experience
The TFA website describes their ideal new participant as one who shows evidence of “past leadership and achievement…in academic, professional, extracurricular or volunteer settings” and “superior interpersonal skills to motivate and lead others.”
Jennings echos that these qualities are essential in the position.
“Teaching is a lot of things,” Jennings said, “but teaching is primarily leadership.”
From positions in his fraternity to his senior year as president of DePauw Student Government, Jennings said his experiences on campus helped him develop important skills he uses during classroom discussions or when he’s writing a weekly lesson plan.
He compared his year with the students at the academy to one long-term goal, and each unit, week and day as short-term goals. He sees himself as a motivating force, assisting his students in achieving each short-term goal as they reach the long-term goal.
For the last two years, 89 percent of TFA corps members held some kind of leadership position on their campus or had other relevant leadership experience.
Jennings said he expects that the many opportunities for leadership positions at DePauw are probably contributing factors to a high rate of success for applicants.
“There’s a million ways to lead [at DePauw], and that translates into success in leading a classroom,” Jennings said.
Gastrock said that above leadership and organizational skills, commitment to TFA’s vision is a key factor in the decision to accept an applicant.
Senior Kevin Hoesley, who will be teaching high-school English in Miami through TFA, said the idea of “doing some good” was what kept him going throughout an application process he called “long and arduous.”
He imagines himself as “one part teacher, one part guidance counselor” to his future students.
Anticipating the challenge
Like Jennings, many of the accepted applicants to TFA have also held a variety of leadership positions while on campus.
Hoesley said working for WGRE prepared him for TFA in a number of ways.
Conducting interviews and writing frequent stories for the station prepared Hoesley for the application and interview processes, making him comfortable with answering hard questions and helping him ask good ones. He said his written statement was probably stronger thanks to the practice he’s gotten working for WGRE.
Senior Flora Gitsis, an education studies major, will be teaching elementary special education in Indianapolis next year as a corps member. She has previously served as the director of finance for D3TV.
“Teach for America was a way for me to get my [teacher’s license] and at the same time, do what I wanted to do — educate kids,” she said.
She said her organizational skills would be essential to her work in the classroom.
“There are a lot of things that you need to do when you have a classroom full of 30 students,” she said.
Hoesley added that participating in the WGRE Winter Term felt a lot like leading a classroom. As news director, Hoesley taught writers and reporters how to operate broadcast equipment and write in the style and structure of broadcast journalism. He edited stories, brought in guest speakers and even gave out assignments.
“I think the radio station, for me, was huge,” he said. “So much of what I learned about leadership and organization and management, I learned from there. Just from that, you can take away a lot of what a teacher would have to do on a day to day basis.”
Gitsis said the responsibility of 30 kids’ education can make her nervous at times. Yet, she is excited to “help [students] and prepare them for the future.”