Why Baltimore?

I’m often asked why I decided to join Teach For America, and why I picked Baltimore, and although I know my reasons internally, these reasons have evolved over time, so it’s difficult to distill it down into a soundbite. So I figured I’d write the whole story here.

I decided over two years ago that I wanted to join Teach For America after hearing about the program from my old roommate and 2006 corps member, Jim Vogl. After 3 engineering internships at two different companies, I had learned that although I enjoy engineering, I couldn’t really see myself spending 8 hours a day in a cube for the next 30-40 years. I had always enjoyed teaching people things, but didn’t know if I’d ever be able to give it a try, with less than a year till graduation. Additionally, I had committed months earlier to the GEM Fellowship, which would cover the full cost of grad school in engineering.

But after Jim told me about TFA, I was immediately intrigued. Immediately after I got back to my room, I went to the website and read as much as I could. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. I would have the opportunity to try teaching as a career, I could have a positive impact in a community where teachers are desperately needed, and the 2 year commitment was short-term enough to not intimidate me. Heck, I could go back to engineering if it wasn’t for me. I decided that I would spend the next 2 years of grad school trying to best position myself for acceptance and success in the program.

During the application process, I had to figure out where, among the 25+ diverse TFA regions, I would prefer to be placed. This was not a quick decision. I probably originally overlooked Baltimore as being somehow inferior to the other great mid-Atlantic cities, but when I finally did read the description of the Baltimore experience on TFA’s webpage, it spoke to me. One thing that struck me was the description of how tight-knit the Baltimore corps is. I’m a very social person, and I found appealing the idea of working in a big city, but without the isolation. Also, although I’m not a highly ethnocentric person, given the sad and desperate state of affairs in the black community statistically, I took a strong personal interest in working to improve a school system that serves an almost 90% black population. In addition, I was very attracted to the certification program at Johns Hopkins that allows me to earn a master’s in teaching in 2 years, which will be a major asset if I decide to continue teaching after my 2 year commitment.

And maybe it’s partly because I’ve always had a soft spot for overlooked places. I guess it comes from growing up near the Second City. It’s always mildly irritating when people ask me, dubiously, what was it like to go to school at Iowa State, to work in rural Belmond, IA, to live in Swansea, Wales, to attend grad school in NJ, or to spend 3 summers and a spring in Kentucky, when I can tell they’re expecting to hear how much it sucked. (Don’t let this dissuade you from asking me about it, it’s only irritating when it comes off like you’ve already decided for yourself) Well there’s more to life than New York and LA, and forgotten places have a lot to offer, too. All these things considered led me to make Baltimore my top preference, and I was fortunate enough to be placed there.

While the things that led me to choose Baltimore are still valid in my mind, my experience at Induction last week has really crystalized in my mind that Baltimore is the right place for me. The situation in Baltimore is stark. Barely a third of kids who enter high school graduate, and for black males, the rate is significantly lower. Even fewer go on to graduate college. The student population served by the public schools has shriveled to about half of what it once was, as people who can get out flee the desperation. The achievement gap between schools in the city and the surrounding counties is staggering.

Despite all of this, I feel like this is an exciting time to be in Baltimore. Everything I’ve heard about Dr. Andres Alonzo, the new CEO of schools, gives me faith that things are about to turn around in Baltimore. To a large extent, it’s now well understood that the status quo is completely unacceptable, and a lot of exciting ideas are being tried. Teach For America corps members from the 90’s and others with years of experience teaching in urban environments are starting experimental new schools, are becoming principals and policy makers, and are bringing in fresh ideas on how allow these kids to be successful.

And I feel that the training from Teach For America will allow me to be successful in my classroom. From what I understand, back when TFA started in the early 90’s, the intent was to provide warm bodies in schools that desperately needed teachers. But, against the odds, some of these first teachers were able to not only able to survive the classroom, but to achieve significant gains. Over the years, TFA has intently studied what it took for these teachers to exceed the expectations, and has distilled it down into a curriculum called Teaching As Leadership. I still don’t know exactly what I’m up against, but at least I know I’m armed with the combined experience of almost 20 years of successful teachers.

While I was at Induction, I also got a feel for what they really meant about how tight knit the Baltimore corps is, so much so that it has earned a reputation among other corps. And from spending time with people from the groups that came before me, I can see why. They’re hospitality has been incredible, and they’ve worked their butts off to make sure we were prepared. The greater Baltimore corps is like a big family, connected by the way each year takes care of the year after it.

Coming in, even though I had the feeling TFA was going to be a life-altering experience, I still looked at it as a 2 year excursion. But after my experience at Induction, it may well amount to more than that. I feel like many of the other incoming corps members had a similar experience. For me, and probably a lot of the others, a major turning point was the community leader panel on Monday night. The question posed to one of the leaders was what the community thought of TFA teachers. And I think the answer surprised us. He said that we do great work, and are very dedicated, but that we leave. We don’t put down our roots, we don’t join the community, and we dip out when our commitment is over. At the moment, I think we were all challenged to reconsider our attitudes coming in. I know I did.

So that’s how I ended up in Baltimore. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I’m psyched about my school placement, the people I’m with, and the city.

I’ve got a week off until Institute begins, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say when I get there.

Drama, drama

The first dramatic climax of the TFA experience (of many to come, I’m sure) has been the placement process.  Each  of us was assigned a provisional placement subject and grade level when we were accepted to the program, but the process of placing us into actual positions at schools has been ongoing these past few weeks.  Some folks had managed to secure placements before Induction, but most of us arrived with nothing yet set in stone.  For those of us without placements, today’s hiring fair figured to be the best place to make a play at the most choice placements.  I fell in an unusual middle ground; a few principals had expressed interest in hiring me, so I knew I’d have some leads to follow up on after getting into town.  One principal had expressed strong interest in hiring me for a middle school position, so I knew I had something pretty much in the bag, if a couple other options didn’t pan out.  It seemed as though the hiring fair would be a pretty painless process.  Wrong!

The plan was pretty clear cut:  chat up a couple charter high school principals to see if I could get an ideal placement, and then follow up with the middle school principal to close the deal.  So I went first to High School, which was a great school I’d heard about from a current Baltimore corps member, and had become my first choice.  The assistant principal caught me off-guard with her aggressive interviewing style, and even though the questions she asked weren’t that out of the box, I found myself struggling and making rookie mistakes.  The other lady with her interviewed me next and seemed a lot more interested in me, so all was not lost.  They said I would hear back later in the week, but I left far from convinced that I had the job in the bag.

While in discussion with High School, I missed a call on my cell from Middle School, and immediately after the end of the interview, I set out to find their table, but couldn’t.  Perplexed, I returned the call.  And this is when my day got complicated.  First of all, the lady I was speaking to identified herself as the principal.  This alone was weird because I thought the guy from the school I’d been in contact with the past couple weeks was the principal.  Anyway, I told her I couldn’t find the table.  She responded that they didn’t come to the hiring fair because mine was the only position they hadn’t yet filled, and she was told that I had signed on.  


Taken (way) aback, I fumbled to explain to her that we clearly weren’t on the same page.  I had expected to speak to a representative from her school at the hiring fair about the details of the school and of the math opening–you know, minor details, such as what their philosophy of education was and what grade I’d be teaching.  She proceeded to guilt trip me about how they’d held the position for me, but I wasn’t about to capitulate.  I compromised and said that there were other schools I had planned to talk to and that I would call her and give her a final answer as soon as possible, but that I needed to speak to someone about the position.  She recommended I talk to a guy named Dr. Roberts from a school called Friendship Academy, even though they were a different school.

So at this point I was torn.  I had a bird in hand, so to speak, but only a couple hours to decide whether to go for it, or to leave them high and dry.  Honestly, I felt bad about the prospect of turning them down, but I didn’t have an incredible amount of pity for them, because they put themselves in the position by not communicating properly with me or sending someone to the hiring fair to speak to me.  But the worst case scenario was that I would turn down Middle school, get turned down by all the hiring fair principals, and end up having to take whatever random assignment I might get.  So I went outside, prayed on it, and went back in, putting it in God’s hands.  I figured that if nothing else panned out, then Middle School was place for me.

First stop: High School.  I decided I’d lay the situation out for them, that they were my top choice, but that my second choice was waiting for me to decide.  The assistant principal basically told me that she didn’t recommend I hold my breath.  Well that took care of that.

Next stop:  I talked to Dr. Roberts at Friendship Academy explaining my situation at Middle School, but instead of telling me about them, right away he started selling me on working for his school.  And it sounded sweet.  Right away we hit it off, and his opening was for 9th grade, which in my mind is the perfect mix.  You still have time to hook the kids on math and bring them up to speed.  They’re old enough to reason with, but not too old to take orders.  Not only that, but the school sounded like a perfect match.  It’s a charter school with school uniforms, a dedicated staff, and focus on science, technology, and engineering.  Before I knew it, or really thought about it, I was giddily signing on the dotted line.

Only as I walked away did the gravity of my potential mistake dawn on me.  Frindship was not on our list of TFA partner schools, and therefore I was specifically told not to interview with them.  So I tore off to find Annie Caldwell, our longsuffering placement coordinator and find out what to do.  After some tense minutes and some back and for walking between Friendship’s table and Annie, it was determined that Friendship was, in fact, a partner school as of today, validating my commitment.

And suddenly, all my problems were solved.  Well, all of them except turning down Middle School.  Naturally, the principal didn’t take it well, and I reckon Dr. Roberts is in for a scathing phone call.  I guess each of us is somewhat to blame, but for my part, I feel as though I’ve tried to be as straightforward as I could be, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

Since I left the hiring fair, I’ve been on a high, and at the same time, I’m exhausted.  Well, that’s one less big variable hanging over my head!  I’m very excited about my school placement, and Dr. Roberts seems like he is going to be a fantastic teaching mentor.  Now, I just need to find roommates and a place.

First Thoughts

It’s my third day in Baltimore for Induction, and it’s already been a heck of an experience.

I arrived on Sunday and began to acclimate myself right away, meeting people and picking through the paperwork they gave me at check-in.  It’s been really interesting meeting the other 2008 corps members.  We’ve got somewhere between 100 and 110 incoming teachers from all over the country.  Everyone is from really different backgrounds, but I get the feeling we’re also a lot alike.  I guess it’s to be expected, considering how rigorous TFA is in finding corps members that fit their mold.

The first full day was information overload.  I’m already trying to process all the teaching-related reading I’ve done on my own, advice from experienced teachers and TFA corps members, and the countless pages of info in the Pre-Institute manuals.  Add to that Monday’s 12 full hours of speeches of all sorts.  I tried to jot down the most salient pieces of advice and remarks, but I’ll probably never dig these notes up again, so I just hope I absorbed the most important details.  The biggest things I plan to internalize are to establish relationships with the students, the other teachers, the administrators, the corps members, and the community, to not succumb to negativity and defeatism, to never waver in setting high expectations for the kids, to be respectful and humble, and to be prepared to work relentlessly.  I’ve got a lot of learning to do these next couple of months.

And this much has been impressed upon me more than anything:  the experience of teaching in inner city Baltimore is going to be extremely tough.  I’d say all of us are somewhat scared to death, and we’d be fools not to be.  But we’re also fired up, and even after a just a couple of days, we’re already starting to band together and dig in.


This is journal I plan to keep to allow family and friends to keep up with me through the my time in Teach For America, teaching in one of the most challenged school districts in the country.  Out of respect for the privacy of others, I will not use actual names of others, where appropriate.

I’m currently in Baltimore for Induction, which is kind of like a week-long orientation to the Baltimore corps.  We’ve got lots of speeches, meet and greets, and bureaucratic tasks to accomplish.

I’m not sure how often I’ll have the chance to update this, but I want to make sure to cover the significant moments.