Establishing roots

Published 10:43 am Monday, August 7, 2017

ROCKY MOUNT – The atmosphere was like a pep rally. Cheering, pom-poms, and upbeat music. Everyone looked excited and ready for the future.

This was the induction ceremony on August 1 at North Carolina Wesleyan College for 100 new Teach for America (TFA) teachers, or “corps members” as the organization calls them. To celebrate the beginnings of their teaching careers in Eastern North Carolina, the ceremony included a mock NFL draft where representatives from each school system called the new teachers to the stage.

The ceremony was partially a celebration of the completion of their summer residency program. TFA worked with Northampton County Schools to offer free summer school classes in July to local students. This was the second year they ran this program.

“It was a true partnership,” said Residency Director Michelle Fockler, explaining that the school system provided food and transportation for the students while TFA handled everything in the classroom.

Representing Northampton County Schools during the Teach for America “mock draft” on August 1, Kim Daughtry (left) presented a certificate and a small gift to Djola McGowan, a new TFA classroom instructor who will be teaching science at Gaston Middle School this year.

The four-week program was for rising 6th through 12th graders, and served mostly as a remedial credit program meant to focus on challenging students in areas they struggled with during the previous school year, Fockler explained. The teachers administered a test at the beginning and end of the program to gauge student growth.

But the program was not only a learning experience for the almost 300 students who participated in classes this summer, but also for the TFA teachers as well. They taught the students in the mornings and then had the afternoons for their own educational experience, going through seminars or preparing lesson plans for the upcoming year.

The teachers who came from all over the country to live in Eastern North Carolina stayed at Chowan University in Murfreesboro during the residency program. Fockler explained that they wanted the new teachers to become acclimated to the area they’d be living in for the next two years.

The goal is not only to have teachers be an influence in the classroom, but also out in the community too.

Djola McGowan and Georgie Wilkins were two TFA corps members who participated in the summer residency program. McGowan will teach this upcoming year at Gaston Middle School, while Wilkins will move to Duplin County to teach high school students there.

The two of them were summer residency roommates, and both spoke highly of the program experience.

“I just want to say thank you for welcoming us,” McGowan said to the residents of Murfreesboro and the surrounding area, acknowledging that everyone treated them very kindly.

Wilkins echoed that sentiment, saying that she was glad people were curious enough to ask questions about themselves and the TFA program. She was also grateful to experience the area beforehand to make the adjustment easier when the school year begins.

Both agreed, however, that their experience teaching the students was the best part of the summer program.

“We’re not created to solve the teacher shortage,” said Andrew Lakis, TFA’s executive director for the Eastern North Carolina region, explaining that their mission is much more complex.

Lakis said that Teach for America is focused on developing leadership skills and providing an equitable education to all children. The Eastern North Carolina region was one of the first for TFA, beginning in 1990. Currently, he said, there are 200 TFA corps members spread out all over the 12-county Eastern NC region, and about 1,000 alumni still living in the area as well.

More and more alumni, he said, are putting down roots in the community where they taught.

“You’re never really done with TFA,” Lakis said, explaining that even if corps members don’t stay on as teachers after their required two years, they often go on to pursue positions as principals, superintendents, politicians, and other leadership opportunities in order to make a difference in their area.

Fockler is a good example of this, having started out her career with TFA as a corps member teaching in Bertie County STEM High School in 2010. Originally from southern California and a graduate of UCLA, Fockler said living in Windsor was very different than what she was used to. She said she wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the area, but she did and decided to switch from teaching students to helping adults by taking a leadership position in TFA.

Kim Suarez, the Managing Director for Development for the Eastern North Carolina region, is someone who’s seen firsthand how TFA has made an impact on the local area. Suarez is from Bertie County but grew up in Woodland, attending both Conway Middle School and Northampton County High School East before she left to finish her high school education in Durham at the North Carolina School for Science and Math.

Suarez said it was hard to leave Woodland behind to continue pursuing her education. Now, she said, students in Northampton County are able to have the same opportunities she had without leaving the area. ENC-STEM is a summer program at Northampton County High School developed by former TFA teachers—Liz Chen, Grayson Cooper, and Dale Hammer—who took the initiative to expand science and math options for students.

Overall, both Suarez and Fockler agree that the key is connecting with the community and students to make a difference.

“We help influence change,” Suarez said of the TFA program’s goals.

“We don’t have to create the solutions ourselves,” Fockler added, “but we can be a part of them by working with the community.”

The Teach for America program will send seven new teachers to Northampton County Schools for this upcoming school year, so that they can teach students but also become leaders in the community and learn themselves along the way.

“We want to reimagine what’s possible,” Lakis said simply, summing it all up.