*** Life After Lawrence is a weekly feature devoted to interviews of recent Lawrence graduates in an effort to provide the current Lawrentian with some ideas of post-collegiate opportunities. This week, Nina Wiesling, Lawrence class of ’03, speaks about her experience with Teach For America, a non-profit organization seeking to eliminate the gap in academic achievement between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. ***Why did you decide to join Teach For America?
In the fall of my junior year I did the Urban Studies Program down in Chicago. During this term I was exposed to all sorts of knowledge-situational and academic — to which I had never before been exposed. Information about segregation, prejudice, inequalities, and racism that I had not known existed. After the Urban Studies program, I began to look more closely at the geographic, economic, and therefore ethnic causes of inequitable access to health care. As I delved deeper, I became convinced that true equality in all areas, including health, could only come from a drastic change in the education system. I considered adding a teaching certificate to my degree but it would have taken a significant amount of additional time and I was anxious to get out and start working for change. That’s when I heard about TFA. Right away, I knew that this was a mission I could rally behind and from all that was written about it, a program that was actually impacting change. What finally convinced me, though, was the organizational focus on short-term and long-term change from both within the classroom and outside of it, in other sectors.
Why does Teach For America exist?
TFA exists because right now where you live largely determines the quality of the education you receive which in turn shapes your economic prospects and therefore your choice of where you live, perpetuating a cycle of inequality. TFA exists because students growing up in low-income communities are, on-average, three to four grade levels behind their peers in reading. TFA exists because equal opportunities in education are our generation’s civil rights issue.
Did you feel like you were an effective teacher even though you didn’t have an education background?
TFA provides an extremely solid preparation during the summer institute, which helped me figure out where my students were academically and where they needed to be. Additionally, I think LU’s focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills really benefited me during my two-year commitment and beyond. My students have consistently made significant academic growth so I guess you could say I am becoming an effective teacher, but the reality is, there is always more I can do for my students.
How did your time in the corps impact your long-term plans/goals?
TFA has completely shaped my long-term plans. As cheesy as it may sound, no matter what path I choose, I know I will be committed to impacting urban education. TFA works to help individuals become effective classroom teachers with the hope that many will continue to teach after their two-year commitment. But they also have a huge alumni support network to help corps members impact change in other sectors. Many of my fellow ’03 corps members are still in the classroom while others have gone on to pursue law degrees, other doctoral degrees, and business professions, but each has continued to contribute to the mission in one capacity or another. It is a powerful experience.
What was your greatest challenge?
The whole experience was challenging — moving to Philadelphia, getting my first apartment, having my first career-oriented job, teaching, building new friendships, working with students, running a classroom, taking classes. But it was the best decision I could have made.
What was your greatest success?
Hearing a student look at our wall of achievements and say, “We’re not as dumb as everyone thinks.” I had another student stumble over a math problem that two months ago would have broken him down into tears, but instead he said, “This is a challenge, and that is good. I need to be challenged.” He moved from the 13th percentile in math to the 71st percentile in two years. That’s pretty powerful.
-What advice would you give to a Lawrence student going into the corps?
Find balance — make sure to make time for the things that rejuvenate you. Keep the mission at the front of your mind at all times — these children deserve a quality education.
***Additional information about Teach For America can be found at www.TeachforAmerica.com***