Williams: Trumans Teach for Change


My first day of teaching, I ate lunch with several other new
teachers in a sparse conference room at my school’s rented campus; we were
there to learn how to “survive” the first year teaching. I felt alone and
terrified until I learned the man sitting next to me was a 2004 Truman Scholar.
Two years later, I was walking through Walker-Jones Education Campus in the
District when I heard a familiar voice teaching a kindergarten class: Lauren
McAlee’s. Lauren (MD ’05) received the Truman scholarship the year before I did
at UNC-Chapel Hill.

As many scholars return to school as students this fall, we
thought it would be fitting to address an article to Truman Scholars who’ve
chosen teaching. From professors of medicine and law, to 7th grade English teachers
and teacher trainers in Tennessee, to kindergarten teachers in Washington, DC,
many Truman scholars have found a passion in education. This piece was written
using responses from a Truman listserv email calling for teachers to answer a
set of questions – apologies to others we have missed!

Truman scholars involved in education reflect the many systems and
people needed to create excellent education in the United States. Increased
attention on schools in the media and politics hasn’t improved schools;
actually, it’s become apparent that it takes comprehensive but flexible
legislation, support at every level of government, structured plans at local
education departments, robust and student-centered curriculum in the school,
experienced teacher trainers, fabulous teachers, and an extensive network of
support within the school (social workers, tutors, and school administrators).
From my interviews, Truman Scholars are involved in each of these areas.
Additionally, Scholars are involved in every educational level, from medical
school, to higher education, to the most primary.

I wanted to find out what entices Truman scholars to begin teaching, and found there were few
commonalities among the responses. Several teachers, like Amber Wallin Parks
(MS ’03) and  Victoria Luhrs (KS ’05),
have always known they wanted to teach. 
As Victoria responded, “I have always wanted to be a teacher. My 4th-grade
birthday party was at a one-room schoolhouse.” Others came to the decision
during high school and college, like myself, Ronald Towns (MI ’07), Heather
Fluit (SD ’09) and the many Teach for America recruits, such as Lesley Meyer
Lavery (MT ’04), Lauren McAlee (MD ’05), Dwayne Bensing (AR ’06), and Chrissie
Coxon (WA ’06). Still others found a passion for teaching after having
children. Karla Vaughn Varriano (GA ’84) writes that “my teaching techniques
were polished and perfected with the 10 years that I spent at home with my own
children.  My passion for teaching has only increased since having a
family because I see now that teachers really are responsible for the next generation. 
We literally ‘make’ people.” 

Despite the various responses, I did find one common element that inspired
Truman Scholars to continue teaching:
a passion to effect true change at a fundamental level. David Simon (MN ’02),
who currently teaches law at the University of Minnesota Law School, says “teaching
is an extraordinary way to empower people to do extraordinary things.” Ronald
Towns (MI ’07), a high school teacher, reports that “what really excites me
about urban education are all of the possibilities in schools.  While my
school is one of the ‘toughest’ schools in Chicago, I am very excited to work
with colleagues that are committed to digging up the gold mine that is our
school.” And Amber Wallin Parks (MS ’03), an educational consultant who taught
for three years, says “the uncultivated potential of teachers and students is
what motivates [her] work now.” She continued: “There is nothing better than
hearing from teachers that an idea I shared with them helped one student
finally get a concept or to watch students as they impress themselves with
their newfound skills. There is no other field that is as challenging and vital
to the future of our nation and world than education.”  

It’s clear that effecting change on the fundamental school level
is challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, no matter what a person’s future
plans. Though several teachers reported a desire to leave primary and secondary
teaching to pursue teaching at a higher level, school leadership, or policy
work, almost all said that they hope to continue the fight for quality
education in those new roles. Lauren McAlee (MD ’06) says she realized “that to
make a deeply positive impact on teaching in America, I needed to become a
great teacher first… Every year I teach, I appreciate its complexity more.”

So, what do Truman teachers now mean for the future of education?
Some Truman pledges include: strong leadership in local education agencies, a
more student-centered curriculum, policies supporting public preschool, better
equipped teachers, and a continued tradition of teaching excellence.

Williams (DC ’07) teaches 5th grade at KIPPDC:KEY Academy, Washington, DC.
Please feel free to contact her at emaryew@gmail.com.

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