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The Transition Period: I taught for America

In the second installment of the Transition Period Series, John Stechschulte, 06 tells us about his experience as a Teach for America Corps member and his cross-country biking trip.

Caption: John at the highest point of his trip, Emory Pass, at 8,228' in New Mexico.

1. Give us a little background. How did your experiences as a college student impact what you wanted to do after graduation?

During my sophomore year there was a Lacrosse player, George Boiardi, who suddenly and tragically died after getting hit in the chest with a Lacrosse ball. Although I never knew him, I attended his funeral as a member of the Glee Club, where we sang the Evening Song and Alma Mater. George was a senior who had been accepted to Teach For America in South Dakota. I left with a strong impression of his respect for American Indian culture, and his commitment to educational equity for the disadvantaged children growing up on the reservations.

As my senior year approached, I had had enough experience doing research to know that it would be unwise for me to follow the crowd to grad school (most of my classmates were looking at Ph.D. programs), and Teach For America was still in the back of my head. I had long felt that teaching was an underappreciated profession and that educational equity, despite being such an enormously challenging problem facing our society, was also the piece of the system that, if fixed, would mitigate so many other issues we face. So, feeling that I needed to back up my beliefs with action, Teach For America became my top choice.

2. Tell us about your transition experience. Was it part of your post-graduation plans?

After graduating I was accepted into the 2006 Teach For America Baltimore Corps. I taught 9th grade algebra for two years at Walbrook High School. After years of being focused purely on my own learning, and being generally successful at it, I wanted something that would really challenge me and give me the opportunity to develop new skills.

The first year of teaching will challenge anyone, regardless of their background and abilities and school placement, but in an inner-city school there are many additional obstacles to success: low expectations, inept administration, lack of resources, and students who had given up on school--because their schools had given up on them--years before. I am proud to say that in the face of these challenges, I had some success--in my first year, the percentage of my students who passed the state test in algebra was twice that of the rest of the 9th grade, and three times the previous year's passing rate. But still it was only 20%. Even in my success, I felt I wasn't doing enough. After spending years in school where moderate effort yielded good results, I was faced with the experience of extraordinary effort yielding only mediocre improvements.

In my second year, I continued to improve in my classroom, and also helped to mentor some first-year Corps Members. Ultimately, I decided to leave the classroom, after completing my two year commitment because I missed using my analytical skills. I continue to support and volunteer with Teach For America, even though I am no longer in the classroom.

3. What were your other options?

On a whim, I had taken a practice LSAT. I did pretty well, so I took the real thing and applied to schools with strong intellectual property programs. I was accepted to George Washington University, and would have attended if I hadn't been accepted to Teach For America.

. What did people around you think about your decision to become a TFA Corps member?

I think it probably surprised many of my friends--I don't think they would've pegged me as a teacher. My mom taught high school English for years, so she had a better idea of what I was getting myself into than even I did. She asked a few questions to make sure I'd really thought things through, but was totally supportive of my decision (and my dad was also). I only had a handful of people who said they expected me to be doing "more" than teaching. I have to assume ignorance on their part, because my two years in the classroom were definitely the most challenging of my life, and I can't imagine what would qualify as "more."

5. What do you see as benefits and drawbacks of this experience?

I am honored to have been a part of the national movement to reform education, and I remain involved although my time in the classroom has ended. I count several of my fellow Baltimore Corps Members as my closest friends, and teaching gave me valuable leadership experience, and confidence that I can make things happen with a good plan and hard work, even when it seems impossible. Of course a drawback of the experience is that it is incredibly difficult and emotionally draining. But now that I've overcome those difficulties, they are a source of strength for me.

6. How did your Teach For America experience impact your subsequent endeavors?

After completing my two year teaching commitment, I had a few months off before I would start my current job. With all this time, and my newfound sense of possibility, I decided to bicycle from Baltimore to California. It was a journey I'd long dreamt of, but without my experience in the classroom, it probably would have never gone beyond the dream stage. I rode solo and unsupported; I carried about 50lbs of gear, camped most nights, and cooked most of my dinners and breakfasts on my camp stove. Often I would knock on doors and ask people if I could set up my tent in their backyard (I was only turned down once). Altogether, I rode 4,600 miles over about three months--I had 72 days of cycling, with a few rest days interspersed. I wore my Cornell jersey for about a third of those days (I only took three jerseys).

On my journey I bicycled through many cities--DC, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Xenia OH, Louisville KY, St. Francisville LA, Austin TX, El Paso TX, Phoenix AZ, and San Diego CA. Some were more bicycle friendly than others, but I was impressed in each by the efforts being made to encourage bicycling and improve infrastructure for cyclists. Since
just before I left on my bike ride, I've lived car-free in Baltimore. Two years ago I would've rated Baltimore as the least bicycle friendly city I'd ridden in. However, the city has made significant strides recently, and I'm excited to be involved in the effort to encourage active transportation.

7. What advice would you give to college students and recent graduates about how to use their transition period?

I don't presume that my experience is universally applicable, but I chose to step way outside my comfort zone, to play to my weaknesses, and to make a commitment to persevere through challenges that I knew would exceed my expectations. And it's probably the best decision I've ever made.

Have you taught or are you currently teaching for America? Do you have any questions for John about Teach For America or cross-country biking adventures?

Makafui Fiavi | Posted on October 22, 2010 (#)

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