In September of her senior year, Morgan Riklin agreed to meet a Teach For America recruiter with one of her friends. But when that friend couldn’t show up, Riklin attended the meeting alone. Almost two years later, she is now teaching kindergarten in a low-income school district in Oklahoma.
“At that point I was dreading the end of college and had NO idea what I wanted to do, so TFA was intriguing to say the least,” Riklin said via email.
Teach For America is attracting more and more SMU graduates to join their cause. With the help of students like Campus Campaign Coordinator, Ariana Hudson, TFA is able to recruit passionate and talented young graduates to teach in public schools around the country.
“We try to recruit people that have demonstrated like leadership throughout college. So not just like good grades, but also being involved on campus and having like a service oriented mind,” Hudson said.
TFA acts as viable option for college graduates who are unsure about their future plans, as well as those looking for valuable teaching experience or involvement with a non-profit organization.
“This is a great two-year period where you can like figure out like ‘what is it that I’m passionate about?’” Hudson said.
Future corps members go through a rigorous application process that involves passing several interviews, creating a sample lesson plan and demonstrating their teaching ability. Once students are accepted, they attend a summer institute where they connect with other new corps members and learn teaching and leadership skills.
“You are up late trying desperately hard to take in and apply all of the information a typical education major learns in their [four] years of college in just [seven] weeks,” Riklin said.
Participants are placed to teach different subjects and age groups, based on their skills. These range from elementary school all the way to high school math.
Katelyn Hall, a 2015 entering corps member and SMU senior, was selected to teach bilingual elementary education in the DFW area.
“I know it’s going to be really challenging, especially with my placement. Bilingual, that’ll be hard. But it’s also something I’m really passionate about and that was what I wanted with Teach For America,” Hall said.
Like Hall, TFA participants must be fully aware of the challenges that will face them in the classroom. Incoming corps members must attempt to recognize these obstacles and mentally prepare themselves.
“For every memorable moment there seems to be a million difficult moments,” Riklin said.
Riklin enjoys watching her students grow in their abilities and skill levels, and even reading her favorite children’s book to them every Friday afternoon. But in her past year of teaching, she also experienced a host of situations including being cursed at by a student, having a chair thrown at her, and calling Child Protective Services when it became necessary. Despite this, Riklin strives to make her classroom a safe and comfortable environment for her students to learn.
“The children I work with have seen so much more than any child should see at their age and they have certainly seen more than I have,” Riklin said.
With the knowledge of these potential difficulties, Hall expects it to be a tough but rewarding first year.
“It’s really vital for corps members to go into this knowing that there are going to be challenges, but like to optimistically look at those challenges,” Hudson said.
Graduates participating in TFA attribute much of what they know and how they act in tough situations, to their time spent at SMU.
“I think that my SMU experiences have developed me into the person who would want to do Teach For America, and also given me the skills I need to be someone who can empower students, but also someone who can adapt to challenges,” Hall said.
Many students, like Hall, feel that despite the obstacles that await them, now is the best time to explore these opportunities and take advantage of different experiences.
“Bilingual education, that’s not something I can really decide to do when I’m 45,” Hall said.
TFA was founded in 1989 and established its Dallas-Fort Worth partnership in 2009. The efforts they make are vital to improving the area’s public schools. The Dallas Independent School District alone is one of the most struggling districts in the nation, Hudson said.
“This program has taught me that you don’t have to go far away to change the world, there is a huge problem in this country. These children are drowning and literally being left behind academically,” Riklin explained.
Current participants and students who look forward to working with TFA boast its many benefits, including the opportunity to earn a master’s degree while teaching. Participants often receive a grant of up to $12,000 to attend graduate school, Hudson said. There are currently 21 TFA participants who, along with teaching in local schools, are earning their master’s degrees from the Simmons School of Education, according to SMU’s website.
SMU students interested in TFA can learn more and apply at teachforamerica.org. Participants agree that the program is constantly focused on its goal of improving education quality in struggling school districts, with an enthusiasm that never falters. This passion and optimism is what’s driving up test scores, Hudson explained.
“We are very goal driven and outcomes oriented. My students know ‘we are learning to read so that we can go to college and have jobs.’ They know that they are special and bright and that they are responsible for their choices both good and bad. They know that knowledge is a powerful thing and that they can succeed,” Riklin said.
This two-year period allows participants to grow personally, while directly impacting the lives of students in need.
“Of course I hope that I am teaching my kindergarten students to the best that I know, but there is so much that I am learning from them,” Riklin said.