Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Hokies teach for America
The learning curve


Virginia Tech alumni are at the forefront of a shared mission to stop educational injustice. Immersing themselves in underprivileged communities through Teach For America (TFA), a nonprofit organization devoted to expanding scholastic opportunity, Hokies are confronting the gap in achievement.

A disturbing reality exists in this nation that a child's birthplace too often determines the quality of his or her education. According to TFA, 9-year-olds in low-income communities are three grade levels below those residing in high-income areas, and only 50 percent will graduate from high school.

In places where children may be sent to school without breakfast, Tech alumni are among a prestigious teaching corps who instills a hunger for another basic need their students are deprived of: knowledge. These individuals willingly accept some of the hardest jobs imaginable and learn about themselves on the journey.

"Service is the rent you pay for living," said Nichole Prickett (human resource management '08), citing an often-quoted phrase on service. Prickett has taught special education in Atlanta since 2008. "It's not fair that these children are [deprived of] equal accessibility because of where they live. We're giving them the tools they need to become self-functioning adults, self-sufficient contributors to society." Prickett's mentality is the framework of TFA's mission to stop educational inequity.

"The need for qualified teachers is undeniably one of the biggest needs in the country," said Kelly Mason (political science '10), recently stationed in Colorado for her first year of teaching.

TFA is one step ahead in addressing this need. An impressive 65 percent of teachers exceed their two-year service obligation and continue to work full-time in the field of education.

"No matter what I do after this, it's going to be focused on education, which is the fundamental stone for any society to succeed. It will be an attempt to show the world that we are all the same," said Adnan Barqawi (business management '09), a second-year math and science teacher in the Mississippi Delta region. The 2009 Undergraduate Leader of the Year was the first Middle-Eastern, civilian-track cadet to serve as regimental commander of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.

Graduating college students are carefully selected to commit to two years of service in regions where there is a demonstrated gap in academic achievement and where the organization receives the community and school district support corps teachers need to be effective in the classroom.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, newly hired teachers in poor urban and rural areas are often among the least prepared and most inadequately supported. "We have to provide these students with what they need," said Mason, a special-education teacher at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora, Colo. "We're creating a system with more transparencies so the problem can expose itself."

The opportunity to teach for America does not come easily. In 2010, 12 percent of all seniors at Ivy League schools applied, and a record total of 46,000 applications came in from more than 350 colleges and universities. Nationally, only 12 percent of applicants made the cut, and just under 10 percent accepted invitations to become members of the teaching corps, setting the bar higher than ever before.

The organization addresses the dire need for highly qualified teachers through meticulous examination of each applicant. "We select exceptional individuals who demonstrate past leadership and achievement, persevere in the face of challenges, exhibit strong critical thinking, have the ability to influence and motivate others, possess strong organizational skills, understand and work relentlessly in pursuit of our vision, and have respect for students and families in low-income communities," said Kaitlin Gastrock, TFA spokeswoman.

About 3 percent of Tech's most-recent graduating class applied for teaching positions, and 14 Hokies were chosen to join the teaching corps for their first year. Eighteen Hokies are in their second year of teaching, while another 18 have completed the program, according to the organization.

"Arriving here has made me realize that all of this was the right decision," Mason said. "It's an adventure in so many ways. … Yes, I want teaching to be my career, but this is so much more." Service is nothing new to the Kappa Delta sister. She participated in numerous volunteer opportunities at Tech and continues her selfless mission in the classroom. "This is how I want to do it, and this is who I want to do it for."

"It's very clear that their passion for community service and education is rooted in their Virginia Tech experience," Gastrock said. "Their accomplishments in the classroom speak to how well the university prepares their graduates. The Hokies are among many working to solve one of our nation's most pressing problems."

Tech teachers soon grasp the meaning of the statistics Gastrock cites--that only half of their students are expected to graduate from high school, and just one in 10 will graduate from college--and the numbers take on a deeper meaning.

"Your opinion and your views change once you're in the classroom," said Prickett, who plans to see her eighth-graders off to high school next spring after teaching three years at Jean Childs Young Middle School. "It's no longer just the stats. It's not 50 percent anymore. It's my kids, my students, my families."

TFA reaches 39 regions in the United States, chosen on the basis of community and school support and other factors, such as a state's alternate route to teacher licensure. Barqawi, Mason, Prickett, and Gina Xenakis (M.S. marketing research '09), a technology and social studies teacher in New York City, are among many who partner with a local university to earn their master's in education while teaching.

The weight of responsibility, reality of poverty, and transition to a new home can be emotionally taxing on the corps. A strong network of support, which includes a transition team at each placement site, becomes a necessity.

"It was definitely not hard to find a sense of belonging," Barqawi said. "After all, we're all unified by the same mission. It's so rewarding to be around people who are very well accomplished, yet have dedicated years of their life to service. Corps come from all walks of life; you have the Ivy League grads and the small-school grads. It's just amazing when you bring talent together."

Research suggests that the talent level has a big impact in the classroom. The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's Carolina Institute for Public Policy recently published a study testing the effectiveness of different pathways into teaching, comparing TFA-trained teachers to graduates of the UNC teacher-preparation system, the state's leading provider of teachers. The study found that TFA "represents an opportunity for UNC and North Carolina to learn and improve" and recommended that UNC identify elements of the TFA model that would be "portable and scalable" to UNC's preparation programs.

Another study, The Effects of Teach For America on Students, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., discovered that "corps members made more progress in a year in both reading and math then would typically be expected," and researchers observed that within this particular data set, students "attained significantly greater gains in math compared with students of other teachers, including veteran and certified teachers."

Along with the impact on schoolchildren, the organization also exposes its teachers to powerful realities that may change their worldviews. "I very quickly learned that being there for them is the most prized gift you could ever give them," said Barqawi. "'You can do it!' are words they've never heard before."

"Once you get in the classroom, it's no longer about you anymore. It's about the kids, the community, the bigger picture, [as opposed to] the 'me' mentality you had during college," Prickett said.

In other words, the teachers are learning, too. Barqawi shared an unattributed quote he stumbled across on the Web, which says, in part:

What will matter is not what you bought but what you built,
not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.

"This is what I've learned," Barqawi said. "Living a life that matters is what to strive for. It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice."


digital edition
Go to digital edition »
Fall 2010
Slideshow: Teach for America illustrated
in the TFA CORPS
"Service is the rent you pay for living."
Nichole Prickett '08 in her Atlanta classroom.
Nichole Prickett '08 teaches in Atlanta.
"Living a life that matters is what to strive for. It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice."
Adnan Barqawi '09
Adnan Barqawi '09 teaches in Mississippi.