The hard-earned rewards of Teach for America

It was around this time last year that I was busily stapling up Teach For America flyers around AU’s campus and tweeting statistics about the achievement gap on the hour to advertise for the final TFA application deadline.

Although I learned a tremendous amount about Teach For America as an organization while working as a recruiter at American last year, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into this year as a TFA Corps Member in Milwaukee.

From the minute I walked into the classroom on the first day of school, my life drastically changed.

I teach 7th and 8th grade social studies and math in a Milwaukee charter school.

Ninety-nine percent of my students receive free lunch each day, and our school lacks most resources that are readily found in suburban Wisconsin school districts.

After a few days on the job, it was clear that my students were seriously lacking in basic math and reading skills. Unfortunately, this is the reality for thousands of other students living in Milwaukee.

With only 39 percent of students “at or above basic” in reading by fourth grade and only 59 percent above basic in math, the educational landscape in this town is awfully grim.

Despite their struggles with literacy, my students proved to me early on that they know how to think critically.

It was a mind-blowing transition from learning about race and the justice system in a Ward classroom to hearing my students share brilliant reflections about the racial injustices they encounter on a daily basis in Milwaukee.

We talk about “power” in my Civics class, about which groups have it and which groups don’t. It broke my heart when my students were not one bit surprised when I told them Wisconsin has the largest black-white achievement gap and Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States.

“Ms. Merkwae, that’s bogus … but we can’t really do anything about it,” tended to be the phrase I heard most from my kids.

That’s where they’re wrong.

AU has prepared me to mold civically conscious minds here in Milwaukee. Teach For America gave me the opportunity to show 7th and 8th grade students that they do have power in society, that they can change their life prospects by making education a top priority, and that they are completely capable of changing the world like the leaders we learned about in class.

My students know the Bill of Rights like the back of their hands. They can explain the importance of allies in creating social change, like the thousands supportive of Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. They can analyze the differences between the philosophies of Dr. King and Malcolm X and decide for themselves whose approach to civil rights they agree with more. I could not be more proud of my students.

I’ll be honest—it wasn’t always easy to get out of bed each morning. The first few months as a corps member were brutal. I got very little sleep, I had never worked harder in my entire life, and I still felt like I was getting nowhere with my kids.

But when friends back in D.C. heard what I was going through, the support from my friends and the AU community was unbelievable. Every day I would get a new box full of supplies, a case of printer paper or an inspirational “thinking-of-you” card.

AU friend and TFA D.C. Corps Member Meg Miraglia (SPA ’11) sent me boxes full of curriculum resources along with inspirational quotes to hang in my classroom and my apartment.

As I fly out the door with photocopies, laptop and coffee mug in hand each morning, I catch a glimpse of one quote hanging on the back of my door. It reads, “Smile, you’re going to learn something today.”

Ain’t that the truth. Every day is an adventure, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to take part in the movement that TFA has started.

As you consider whether or not to apply to Teach For America’s final deadline, I encourage you to think about my students in Milwaukee and the millions of other students across the country that are shortchanged by the educational system in the United States.

Let’s give them the education they deserve.

Amanda Merkwae (SPA ’11)

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