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Pierre Gooding, Teach for America teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School in New York City, graduated from the College in 2006. Credit: Beth Sussman

It took some practice, but 2006 Penn alumnus Pierre Gooding has the essentials of being a teacher down pat.

He's learned how to take attendance, field requests to go to the bathroom, write on the chalkboard like a pro, check-up on nightly homework assignments and, most importantly, teach his students the English skills they will need for life.

Penn alumni, like Gooding, who have become Teach for America corps members, say that the experience is worthwhile and rewarding, but also incredibly challenging.

"Boys and girls, we have to take care of our homework," he says, as several students try to explain their missing reading assignments.

Next, the dozen uniformed sixth graders break up into groups to practice vocabulary words.

One student frowns when he's assigned to the sentence-writing station.

"Do you want to work with me?" Gooding asks him.

"Yes!" the student exclaims as he smiles, bounces his shoulders up and down and does a little dance.

At Penn, Gooding was a pre-law student and class president for two years, but since graduation he has become the cool English-language teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School in New York City.

Teach for America - a two-year teaching post at a low-income school - is becoming a more popular option for Penn students who have never considered teaching before.

Gooding didn't think about it until he worked as a Teach for America campus campaign manager his senior year, recruiting and targeting potential applicants.

From the class of 2007, 122 Penn students applied for Teach for America and 31 students became corps members.

"I realized this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," said Gooding.

Gooding teaches reading and writing to about 30 sixth graders who need extra help with their English language skills because of foreign family backgrounds. Last year, he taught eighth-grade "English as a Second Language" students.

Gooding started off his first day of teaching with a long speech about his academic objectives for his students. The long moment of silence that followed his speech scared him. He didn't understand why none of the students were reacting.

"Finally, a girl raised her hand and said, 'Mr. Gooding, we don't know English.' That was definitely an eye opening experience," he said.

Most of his current students are on a third- or fourth-grade reading level, so his goal is to advance them two years in reading and one-and-a-half points in writing on a national rubric.

Because of the nature of his teaching, Gooding says he was forced to reevaluate his expectations and goals for his students.

"When you are a senior in college, you have a very idealistic view of what you are going to do in your own classroom, how your classroom's going to operate, what you're going to see," he said. "Then, when you get into the classroom, you realize that yes, you can make these changes, but you need to be cognizant of all of the skills and all of the weaknesses of your students."

Though Teach for America corps members are placed in low-income schools, where the students traditionally do not have as many educational opportunities and disciplinary issues are more prevalent, Gooding has been very pleased with the drive of his students and their willingness to work with him.

"I really think that they understand the challenges in the classroom and they really want to succeed," he said.

While Gooding has been happy with his students' progress, he recognized that bumps in the road sometimes happen.

Earlier this year, one of Gooding's students was suspended for bringing a dangerous weapon to school, which he described as a "low moment."

But when Gooding thinks about how he's spending his first two years out of college compared to his friends, he's extremely satisfied with the results of his work.

"A lot of my friends and my peers are looking toward the future because they want to make an impact, and I feel that part of my job has already been accounted for."

Beyond the Classroom

Though Gooding will be attending Penn Law School next fall, a majority of Teach for America corps members continue in education after their two-year commitment.

Of the more-than-12,000 corps members who have taught through Teach for America since the program started in 1990, 67 percent are currently working or studying full-time in the field of education. Of those, half are teachers.

Eight percent of program alumni are now in law, five percent have gone into medicine and four percent went on to careers in business.

Steph Graham, a 2007 College alumna, is now teaching at a KIPP school in Helena, Arkansas.

KIPP schools, which stand for Knowledge is Power Program, are public charter schools that require extra time commitment from both the teachers and students, who choose to be there.

The school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus classes are held two Saturdays a month and three weeks of the summer.

Graham hopes to eventually start her own school, perhaps based on the KIPP model, which she has observed to be successful.

"It's a different dynamic in that they've really chosen to be here," she said. "It adds a lot to the school and to the community within the school in that everyone has choice."

Other corps members plan to continue working with education issues through other fields.

Jennifer Bunn, a 2006 Penn graduate, teaches fifth graders in Las Vegas. She is applying to law schools now and hopes to use her law degree in the future to change education policy.

"I've seen a lot of what I want to do law-wise and hopefully politically. I've seen it play out in the classroom," she said.

Teach for America officials say that their long-term goal has more to do with changing national perceptions of the education gap.

Fixing the education problem requires "having lots of people in society who get it and are passionate about it," said Matt Reamy, the recruitment director for Penn.

Making a Difference

Corps members say making the transition from student to teacher is the hardest part, but soon they are able to see the change they are making in their students' lives.

"I knew how to handle myself, but trying to get 30 other people to do something was stressful for me," said Bunn.

Stefanie Williams, a 2006 graduate, said that forming solid relationships with her students has made it much easier to motivate them.

"You have to know that no matter how hard it is, you are doing something important and you are affecting people's lives." said Williams, who teaches eleventh-grade English in Miami and also coaches volleyball at the school.

School administrators realize how hard corps members work to aid their students.

"They're very giving of their times and energies," said Ourania Pappas, principal at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School. Her biggest problem with Teach for America corps members is that they want to do too much, such as taking students for trips on Saturdays, which becomes a liability for the school.

Even though the challenges are great and progress is sometimes slow, Penn alumni who have taught through Teach for America recognize the value in their efforts.

"When you come home with your battle scars and you come home from a hard day, you have to remember that you are changing these children's lives, and whether or not they say thank you, they really do love you," Williams said.

Each week, The Daily Pennsylvanian takes an in-depth look at an issue affecting the community. Look for Perspective every Tuesday.

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