Friday, June 03, 2005

A long journey to the Delta

It was busy, it was exciting, it was exhausting. The first week of MTC was everything I was expecting, and more.

I am returning to Mississippi, where I lived and substitute taught for the second half of 2004, to begin a new chapter in my life as a full-time classroom teacher. It was a long journey from college graduation in June of 2004 to finally joining the Teacher Corps this week. Originally, I had planned to be a member of 2004 Corps, but a cut in the budget courtesy of newly-elected Governor Hayley Barbour resulted in the elimination of my spot in the program. This was incredibly disappointing, and left me grasping at straws as to what I would do in the coming year.

I knew that I wanted to join MTC, and so I was willing to wait a year to be a part of the Corps. Back when I was planning to join the '04 Corps, my girlfriend Jamie accepted a position with Teach For America to teach in the Mississippi Delta. The revelation that I would not be able to join her in the Delta was obviously very stressful to our relationship. We resigned ourselves to spending the ensuing year apart, as I thought it would be impossible to find a job in such a depressed economic place as the Delta. With that in mind, I accepted a job to become a second grade teacher's assistant at Shore Country Day School, an affluent private school on the coast of Massachusetts.

That summer, I worked at Exploration Junior Program, a wonderful educational camp for students entering grades four through seven. Midway through the summer, as the realities of long-term separation from my girlfriend set in, I began to consider the possibility of joining her in the Delta. In the end, my heart made the decision for me. I called up the prinicipal of Shore and resigned my post, a month and a half before I was scheduled to begin work there. I packed up my car and drove down to Mississippi. In my mind I hoped that I was making the right choice.

My first month in the Delta was notable for the frustrations I experienced in looking for a job. No one needed a teacher two weeks into the new school year, and the only jobs available were posted by trucking companies. I considered the possiblity of obtaining a trucker's license, but I finally decided that to be a little too impractical. The only positive of the situation was that I was able to support my girlfriend during her first month of teaching fourth grade. We made many late night trips to the photocopy center, and I graded so many of her students' papers that I soon knew all of the students by name and writing style.

I stayed in Mississippi through the middle of December. Eventually, I became eligible to substitute teach, and I always enjoyed receiving the call to come in and sub. I taught a little bit of everything: I was an elementary gym teacher, high school art teacher, special educator. I got the opportunity to try a lot of different things. One day, I even threw on a hair net and apron and worked with the lunch ladies at Carver Elementary School in Indianola. I enjoyed these ephemeral experiences, but inside I longed to be a full-time teacher with my own classroom. I knew that I could do a good job, and I wished that I was called to teach more often than the two days a week I usually spent working.

While I was in Indianola I noticed many of the terrible problems that worked to slow down student achievement. Students are unmotivated, and too many of them have no fathers to encourage them. Their mothers and grandmothers often work two or three jobs, and rarely have the opportunity to spend time with their children. This contributes to a cycle where students in junior and senior high school have children of their own, starting families before they have had the opportunity to receive the education necessary to improve their own station in life. The list of problems is lengthy and convoluted, and presents a daunting challenge for communities in the Delta and programs such as MTC.

Eventually, lack of work caused me to make the decision to leave the Delta in January of 2005. I took a job teaching sixth-grade science in a camp setting in Julian, California. I worked with a YMCA program there, and spent upwards of 23 hours a day teaching and mentoring students. It was a difficult job, but rewarding and exciting at the same time. I picked up some Spanish from the many Mexican students I worked with, and was revitalized by the chance to work with young people on a daily basis. I missed my girlfriend while I was away, but I enjoyed my time in California, and I looked forward to the prospect of joining her as a fellow teacher in the Delta.

Now, I am back in Mississippi. The challenges I left behind are still here, but I feel that having my own classroom this year will provide me with a greater opportunity to affect positive change in my students. I believe that education is the greatest weapon we have for fighting poverty in this country, and I strongly believe in the goal of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. We have a great group of people here this summer, and we will have to support each other tremendously if we want to be as successful as possible. I fully anticipate this to be the most exhausting, heart-breaking, and challenging two years of my life. But if I did not think that I could make a difference down here, I never would have shown up to orientation. It is my belief that everyone in our program feels the same way.

1 Comments:

Blogger A. Monroe said...

Joel,
What a crazy and exciting year you have had! Your experience will be an asset to you this summer. The substitute teaching (and even food service gig) will be a foundation on which to build your professional knowledge. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences.

7:41 PM  

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