Today I was lucky enough to interview friend and yogi, Mary Ann Lopez who has been teaching through a program called Teach for America. Mary Ann earned an MA in Print Journalism from University of Colorado in Boulder and received her Bachelors in Political Science/ International Relations from Northern Illinois University. She has worked for Patch news, The Sun-Times New Group, YourHub.com, The Durango Herald and The Montrose Daily Press. Originally from Calumet City, she now lives in Charlotte with her rescue dog, Sadie and adopted cat, Bubba the Zen Master.
"People who get into this program have a really hard time when they start out," says Lopez. "What they teach in the training is to focus on relationship building over standard pedagogy. If you can’t connect with some of these kids, you aren’t going to influence them to care about their own education. A lot of these students have had no breakfast, or have been through the system, or have no parents to account for them or one parent, or are transient, or already have an ankle bracelet… you might find a 16 year old freshman or someone who’s parent was killed in a gang fight."
Teach for America has been around for about twenty six years. The idea is that one day all kids will have the education they deserve. It places teachers in high need regions, is a program of Americorps and is highly selective. There is a two year minimum commitment, an induction and training - since not all recruits come from a teaching background. They are recruiting teachers, people in career change and people getting out of the military. They have a strong emphasis placing minorities.
"The goal of Teach for America is to get people immersed in ‘the work’ so that when they leave they continue to push toward everyone having access to an equitable education and social responsibility. Some people leave AmeriCorps and Teach for America and become lawyers, doctors or go into school leadership as a civilian and it is the hope they bring this principle with them. Since DeVos has been in her office, the administration has already taken down the website for students with disabilities. It was actually in the news. Generally speaking, there is a very low opinion of her and no one really feels she’s qualified," Lopez stated. "We can’t and shouldn't perpetuate the view that these are 'bad' kids. All the kids in the program get meals and, honestly, you might not know by looking at any of them what kind of life they’ve had or what their struggles have been."
"We want to inspire these kids to want to learn and to be lifelong learners. I do believe in Teach for America and its value," she says, "especially here in Charlotte where the black versus white suspensions are so unbalanced. Have you ever heard of the prison pipeline or The New Jim Crow? If some of these kids go to juvy, they are so much more likely to go to jail and right now we’re building more prisons than schools. So many of these kids - both boys and girls - have been through the system and we need to tell them, ‘It’s okay! You can move on from that! You have the ability to move past it, but it might not be easy.’ "
She says that still, sometimes the kids make bad choices, but retains the belief that they aren’t ‘bad’ kids. She gets questions like, ‘Are you going to leave in the middle of the semester?’ because these students been abandoned so many times. One girl, she says, is so bright, yet she is just full of self doubt. Mary Ann described the job life to be chaotic and the training as 'bootcamp for teachers' because 'if you can’t handle the training, you wont be able to handle the job.'
"It’s tough and the kids are even rougher this year than last. There is a very high teacher drop rate," she said. "You have to realize that sometimes it is the adult in their life or their community or even their role model who teaches them to not be trusting and also how to steal or hustle. One bunch where trying to sell girl scout cookies. I witness a family pull up to a dollar store display that was out on the sidewalk, open the car door and told their little boy to run out and steal the stuff and jump back in the car. He must have been 7 years old."
"Some of the kids don’t trust me because they think I’m white. Im Mexican and Italian. One girl just flat out called me a racist until she began to know my story and give me a little bit of trust. All of us come with an implicit bias. This is one of the things we learn and talk about deeply in training. Only the people who are in possession of power can be racist so this whole concept of ‘reverse racism’ some of the conservatives have been propagating is just BS. You can be prejudice , but not racist."
Teach for America and AmeriCorps are now under attack by the new administration as well as programs such as Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
Edited and updated 2/18/17 in light of recent news.