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The Teach for America program has, at its core, a simple philosophy: encourage talented young graduates and professionals to put their personal careers on hold and enter public service for the betterment of the country.
Each year, hundreds of dedicated individuals, from all different backgrounds, enter classrooms around the country — mostly in urban areas — to help teach students in impoverished areas and help them realize the educational opportunities available to them.
This year, that crop of committed first-time teachers includes Cheshire native Lauren Wein who, for the next year, will be teaching at an alternative school in New Orleans.
“You can’t do this unless you are passionate about it,” said Wein, who has been in New Orleans since the beginning of last month. “I had been recruiting people for the program on my college campus and, when you’re selling something, you begin to think ‘maybe I should be doing this myself,’ so I decided to join up.”
Wein, 22, was a student at Cornell University majoring in industrial labor relations when she began to help try to recruit individuals for the Teach for America program. Wein had always been active in public service around her campus and was passionate about finding ways in which she could help others.
Initially, when she decided to join Teach for America, she was interested in volunteering in Washington, D.C., as she had heard the school system in the city was pursuing new and interesting ideas about education.
However, a friend of hers suggested she research New Orleans as a possible destination, and the more she read about the school system, the more attractive the idea of going to New Orleans became.
“Before (Hurricane) Katrina, New Orleans had some of the worst schools in the country,” Wein explained. “The drop-out rate was something upwards of 60 percent. When the storm hit, pretty much every school got knocked out, so it really became an opportunity to do something different.”
The New Orleans administration, Wein stated, overhauled their entire system, decentralizing the districts to ensure that most of the decision-making was left in the hands of principals and not the superintendent. Individual heads of schools were allowed to hire the teachers they wanted and run the schools their way, and charter schools began to pop up, allowing families in the area the opportunity to choose which schools their children would attend.
“The result has been that the schools have become really interesting and really successful,” said Wein, “so it was definitely something in which I wanted to be a part.”
Wein had never ventured to New Orleans before, so it was hard for her to tell what the city had been like before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in the summer of 2005. Yet there are still some reminders, such as marks visible on certain buildings that show how high the water line had risen at the height of the storm, she stated.
While there, however, Wein has been able to see the unique perspective of the residents in the area about the storm, as evidenced by their recent celebration during the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall.
“There were parades and activities in the streets, which was really interesting,” she said. “They were at once celebrating and also mourning those who had been lost during the storm.”
The school in which Wein now teaches is considered an “alternative” school where students between the ages of 16 and 21 come after they have fallen considerably behind their fellow classmates. In fact, despite their ages, Wein revealed that most of her students are at about a sixth grade level when it comes to education.
The schools in New Orleans are considerably different than in places like Cheshire, Wein remarked, stating that most are “considerably under-funded and extremely segregated.”
“By the time they get to me, they are way behind and there are a variety of reasons for that,” Wein said. “Most of them have just failed so many times at school, they believe they are simply going to continue to fail.”
The task of teaching a class full of students struggling to catch up to their peers would be challenging for any veteran teacher, let alone someone with little teaching experience of their own. When Wein first walked into her classroom, she admitted to being nervous about what she would find, and when she saw the faces “staring at me, waiting for me to help them,” she realized how important her job would be to the students in her charge.
“I’ll never forget the looks on their faces,” she said. “It is something I will never forget.”
But, over time, Wein has learned that the most important thing is to develop “relationships” with the students and provide them with a sense of structure and consistency inside the classroom.
“I told them, the first day, that I was going to be there for them every day,” Wein recounted. “Many of them have such crazy lives outside of school, we just want to make sure that there is structure and they know what is expected when they come here.”
Wein related the story of one of her young students who, early on, explained that he had considerable problems with math. To alleviate the student’s stress, Wein promised that she would gently help him through the learning process, something his former teachers had evidently been unwilling to do.
“He had struggled with math in the past and his teacher would yell at him so, because he didn’t like his teacher, he just gave up,” said Wein. “Now, he was watching as his smaller cousins were able to do multiplication tables while he still wasn’t able to. He was just looking for someone to help him.”
The job is by no means easy, as Wein admitted that getting the students to keep their focus is a challenge each day, yet her fellow Teach for america peers offer support and an empathetic ear when necessary.
“There definitely is a bond that develops,” she explained. “I am very lucky to be here with first-year teachers. If there are any traumatic moments or moments of self-doubt, we can turn to each other for help.”
However, Wein insisted that the job can best be described as “fun and exhilarating” and that each day offers something new.
“The kids themselves are a lot of fun and very funny,” she said. “A lot of times, they are the ones who make my day.”