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.

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