White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers
Good morning. Before I begin I would like to thank the White House and First Lady Laura Bush for sponsoring this conference on teacher education and giving me the opportunity to share my experiences with you.
It's an honor to speak to so many people who are dedicated to increasing opportunities for children. It's also wonderful for me to speak to a group of people where I don't have to begin by saying "If you can hear me touch your nose," or cleverly try to get your attention by saying "Who is listening?" and have you all answer by saying, "I am listening." So if you couldn't guess, I am a kindergarten teacher. There's a saying that goes something like: "Everything you ever needed to learn, you learned in kindergarten." This is, of course, just a little pressure for all of us who are teaching kindergarten! I do know that attending kindergarten taught me a lot of important lessons, but I think that teaching kindergarten has provided me with even more significant life-long lessons.
I remember my first day of kindergarten—and no, I'm not referring to when I was five! I'm actually thinking of when I was 22 years old and teaching my first day of kindergarten in the South Bronx in New York City. I was, of course, incredibly prepared and I had everything ready. The tables were set, the pencils were sharpened, the crayons were multicultural, and the door said, "Welcome, Bienvenidos." Then, the children walked in. Eric walked in screaming, "I don't want to go! Help, Help!" Anna walked in—well actually Anna didn't walk in she sashayed in—and confidently declared "Ms. Menendez, I already know how to write my name." Luis walked in with his head low, and very shyly said, "Good morning Ms. Menendez" in a voice that sounded shockingly like Barry White. These three children definitely surprised me...in fact, everything about that day surprised me! But the more interesting surprises began about five minutes after we said goodbye to all the mommies and daddies. A lot of children started crying, except for Anna of course who just rolled her eyes in frustration at the "immaturity" of her fellow kindergarteners. And then there was Eric, who decided that that particular moment would be the perfect time to wet his pants. So at that particular moment, I thought to myself, "How did I get here?"
I had ended up in this kindergarten class because of Teach For America. For those of you who may not be familiar with the organization, Teach For America is the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and who become life long leaders in the effort to expand opportunities for all children. In 1996, just one year after I graduated with my B.A. in English Literature from the University of Maryland, I applied to Teach For America. Everything I read and learned about the organization convinced me that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Teach For America's vision states that: "One day, all the children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." When I first read this vision statement I was teaching at an independent school in Baltimore, Maryland. The children at this school had everything a student could hope for: fabulous computers, high-powered telescopes, a wide selection of literature books, and they were even learning Latin! Their parents were able to take them on weekend trips to the Bahamas and provide other amazing vacations and opportunities that enriched their educational experiences. These children had so many wonderful opportunities. But I truly believe that all children deserve the same opportunities and high quality education. I learned that Teach for America wanted to send committed and talented people into schools to provide children in all communities with an excellent education. I also knew that I wanted to teach in a school where children did not necessarily have all of the advantages that the students had at my private school. I wanted to teach at a school that I felt needed me more. I wanted to be a part of Teach For America's national movement to ensure that children in every school have an equal opportunity to succeed—regardless of their background.
Making this decision to apply to Teach For America was definitely just the first step! I had to make it through TFA's rigorous application process—which included a written application and a day-long interview session where I had to teach a lesson to a small group of fellow applicants, participate in a discussion group, and have a one-on-one interview. So when I received my letter of acceptance, I was so anxious that my sister actually called me at work to let me know I was officially part of Teach For America and had been assigned to a teaching position in New York City. I had never even been to New York before so you can imagine the excitement I felt!
Three months later I flew to Houston, Texas—which is one of the two sites where Teach For America trains its corps members for the classroom. During the summer institute in Houston I taught a first grade summer school class under the mentorship of a Houston Independent School District veteran teacher and with the guidance of Teach For America alumni and staff members. Along with 600 other TFA corps members, I spent the next several weeks teaching summer school classes in the morning, attending courses and workshops in the afternoon, and developing our lesson plans in the evening. Our courses taught us how to design effective lessons, develop long-term instructional plans, and prepared us to design effective classroom management systems. We discovered ways to further invest and engage parents in their children's education and our classrooms. We learned how to write effective long term plans for our classrooms so that we always maintain high expectations for our students. We talked about ways to continue our ongoing professional development once we arrived in our local regions and began teaching. We talked about ways to incorporate our students' culture and background into our overall classroom strategies. We learned specific strategies to teach children how to read and improve their overall literacy and comprehension skills. In short, we learned the fundamentals that any new teacher needs before they walk into their classroom on the first day of school.
After an incredibly challenging summer, the 600 corps member "family" that I now shared went off to places like South Louisiana, rural North Carolina, Los Angeles, the Bay area, New York, New Jersey, the Rio Grand Valley in Texas, Baltimore, and Washington DC to begin the most important job of our lives: TEACH! So I left Houston, moved from my home in Maryland, and took all that I owned to New York City. During my transition period to New York, the Teach for America regional office helped me as much as possible. I found an apartment and I got a laundry and grocery cart (which is the true sign you're a New Yorker!). And two weeks after the summer institute ended, I started my first day at Public School 42—the Claremont Community School in the South Bronx.
Which, of course, brings me back to Eric, Anna, Luis and the other children from my first kindergarten class. And just to let you know, in my first few moments as a kindergarten teacher I started singing all the nursery songs I knew as I led the class down the hall to the bathroom. We got Eric cleaned up from his "accident" and I convinced Anna to become a class leader and soothe the crying children. I survived that day. And to be honest, I owe a lot of thanks to Anna!
But to be perfectly honest, that first day frightened me! In fact, I think new teachers spend a lot of their first year frazzled—as they try juggle all of these new experiences and challenges. I literally spent most evenings in my classroom from 3:00 to 7:00 planning and preparing for the next day. But unlike some other new teachers, I was fortunate to have Teach for America's New York office to provide the on-going support and mentorship I needed during my first two years in the classroom. I met regularly with other TFA kindergarten teachers to plan lessons. Teach For America planned regional meetings and workshops to support my ongoing professional development. I was also fortunate enough to have other Teach for America corps members and alumni at my school to provide yet another layer of support, feedback, and suggestions.
So how did my first school year with Teach For America go? Well, I can definitely say that we were kindergarten at its best. We learned to read. We learned to write stories (Eric discovered that he especially loved writing stories about the beach!). We learned addition and subtraction. We learned in two languages, English and Spanish. We sang songs. We went to the zoo. We had caterpillars in the classroom and watched them turn into butterflies to learn about life cycles (Luis with the "Barry White voice" was especially interested in the butterflies!). Through developing strong parent relationships I was able to visit my children after school and take them to trips outside of the Bronx (trips to the Natural History Museum were definitely among Anna's favorites!). I still remember our graduation party on the last day of school when, after having sung the theme song to the Laverne and Shirley television show ("We're gonna make our dreams come true!"), no one wanted to leave the classroom!
I, in particular, really didn't want to leave the classroom. So I haven't. I continued at PS 42 in the Bronx for three years and taught a few different grades from kindergarten through fourth grade. I now teach just south of Harlem and this year I am actually teaching kindergarten again. We are halfway through our year and, once again, we are kindergarten at its best. This year I have a Michael, a Caroline, and a Robert. And once again they were crying on the first day just like my old first group of kindergartners did six years ago. This time, the only difference is that my years of teaching have given me a few more effective strategies to deal with all of the new challenges that come along with a room full of five year olds.
Because I have completed my two-year commitment, I am no longer an official Teach For America corps member. But, as one of the more than 6,000 alumni of TFA, I continue to remain an active supporter of Teach For America's vision. I served on TFA's summer institute staff as a corps member advisor during the summers of 1999 and 2000. And just this past summer I worked as a School Director where I collaborated with a local principal to oversee one of the schools where corps members did their student teaching during the summer institute. I was able to draw on my own experience both as a former corps member and classroom teacher to truly ensure that corps members receive the most effective training and support during their summer institute experience.
I'm proud to be a part of Teach For America's force of leaders who are committed to working throughout our lives to increase opportunities for all children. I am one of more than 40% of Teach For America alumni who remain in the classroom after their two years of service, and one of the 60% of alumni who are working full-time in education. Of the 40% of alumni working outside of the field of education, in sectors ranging from law to medicine to politics, 70% say some aspect of their jobs continue to relate directly to schools and/or low-income communities. I'm proud to say that we are all still working toward our vision that: "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." I think all of my former, current, and future students deserve this opportunity...so I will continue to Teach For America. It has definitely been an amazing and magical experience.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.