We found ourselves in a magical place: a school where the disruptive signals of cell phone communication would not reach. A location so pure that AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile bars exist solely in one’s dreams. Instead of electronic beeping, we heard the soft and steady pitter patter of rain on the roof of the classroom. We thought to ourselves, “oh how wonderful it would be if students could not use cell phones at our schools.” We began to brainstorm ways to emulate the signal-less learning environment. The best we could come up with was this (by the way, is it legal?).
This spring break–rather than hopping on a cruise ship and navigating the Caribbean, or heading home to share war stories with friends and family, or hibernating in bed to close the sleep gap formed over the past 3/4 of the school year–a half dozen DC region CMs decided to embark on a TFA “alternative spring break” trip of sorts–one that was part professional development, part eye-opening experience, part inter-regional exchange and part beach stay.
This magical place was a public school in eastern North Carolina, the second major stop on our itinerary. Thanks to the graciousness of some 2009 Eastern North Carolina (ENC) CMs, we were observing rural classrooms.
Only the day before had we rolled out of DC–energized, nutritionally and emotionally, from a wonderful dinner and conversation in Annapolis with two ’91 CMs who were doing great things in the education world–packed in a red minivan with 130,000 miles on it, eager to see education from another perspective. Sunday night, we arrived at a beautiful lakehouse shared by 4 ENC CMs. After marveling at their living situation, we became even more jealous when we learned that their total rent for the house was equal to the rent that each one of us paid individually (we later learned that next year they will be taking in 2 additional CMs, at which point their individual rent will be equivalent to how much I pay for parking each month!).
Over dinner that night, we exchanged notes, comparing and contrasting our experience teaching in urban DC with their experience teaching in rural North Carolina. Here are some of the key points, in the form of some serious platitudes and cliches:
- Teaching is teaching is teaching – I arose at 6am Monday morning to the steady back-and-forth hum of an inkjet printer. I immediately panicked while simultaneously feeling a knot form in my stomach: “another day of teaching and I’m not yet fully prepared!” Then I realized that I was on spring break. It was, in fact, the rural CMs who were frantically scrambling to prepare for the day. We discovered, too, that–surprise, surprise!–we struggle with the same issues around behavior, truancy, investment and bureaucracy. So, it doesn’t matter where you teach, who you teach, or how many bars of reception you get for your cell phone–the teaching experience is universal.
- The grass is greener on the other side - Our group could not help marveling at the beauty of the lakehouse in which these 4 lucky (at least in our eyes) CMs lived. I pictured my life as a rural teacher: drive through backcountry roads to a school, return home to my beautiful house, grade papers and do pleasure reading on the sexy private pier that juts out into the lake. O, what I would trade to live a slower-paced life like theirs! But the reality is that rural living has its downsides. These rural CMs also longed for the day where they would not have to stand outside their house on a ladder to get cell phone reception. They emphasized over and over that, yes, the weather now is nice, but when it’s the dead of the winter and your driveway is blocked and the nearest source of food is tens of miles away–well the experience isn’t so great in that situation. So, there are pluses and minuses to all situations. Teaching is no exception to that.
- Teach For America is one big happy family - Although we had made contact with this group of CMs through one of my friends from college who had chosen to teach in NC, when we arrived at the lakehouse, I discovered that he was not at home. So, I found myself meeting a complete stranger at the door. Yet, I knew that my friend lived with other CMs. As a result, our meeting was not awkward. There was this implicit understanding that we had a common bond that united us, even though we had never met before. As the night wore on, and as we laughed about our teaching experience, I realized that, wow, the people that make up Teach For America are an extended family living and working all over the country.
Back to our magical place. This school was not the only school we visited on our trip. We experienced the awesomeness of one KIPP school. And then another (impressions, from other tripmates, to come later)! This was, without a doubt, a highly anticipated experience, since most of us had just finished reading Word Hard. Be Nice., Jay Mathews’ excellent narrative on the story of KIPP.
Over the past week, we seriously experienced education from all perspectives. We spoke with students (at numerous schools), teachers (both current and former), principals (inspiring and determined), school founders (of the charter variety), nonprofit leaders (at the Gates Foundation and at a teacher prep organization) and even an education journalist (Jay Mathews himself!). In meeting these diverse individuals, we learned that the solution to the achievement gap can come from outside the classroom just as much as in the classroom.
But, the task of recapping the spring break experience is too much for me to handle alone. Thus, I have enlisted my tripmates to each provide a reflection on one aspect of the trip. Depending on how quickly I can prod them to send me their posts, you will see these interesting reflections shortly.
Spring break is over, standardized testing is happening in 2 weeks, and I am revved up again. It’s the home stretch. Here is a photo I took of the cherry blossoms along the tidal basin that help me remember that spring is about new life (and new opportunities).