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Why I chose Teach for America

erikarberry@gmail.com

 

Arianna entered my sixth-grade math classroom struggling with simple, basic computation, doing math on a second-grade level. 

Although her struggles sometimes discouraged her, I knew that she was eager to be challenged. Each day she began class wide-eyed, notepaper on desk and pencil in hand, but by the end of class she was withdrawn and defeated, no matter how much she tried to master the sixth-grade concepts.  It was obvious that low achievement had defined her in elementary school, even though she brought high hopes to middle school.

Arianna’s story is all too common among students growing up in low-income communities. When kids growing up in poverty enter kindergarten, they are already academically behind their wealthier peers. This gap in educational opportunity only widens over time. By the fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind and half won’t graduate from high school. Only one in 10 will attend college, and for those lacking a college degree, many doors are firmly shut.

As a senior at Ole Miss and a native Mississippian, learning about the achievement gap greatly unsettled me. 

At Ole Miss I had access to a first-class college education, while just a few miles away in the Mississippi Delta, kids were falling further and further behind academically. The entrepreneurial Ole Miss spirit inside of me wouldn’t tolerate this inequity — I had to find a way to help expand educational opportunity for children growing up in poverty. That’s why I joined Teach For America and became a sixth-grade math teacher in Charlotte, N.C.  

My time at Ole Miss proved invaluable in shaping who I would be as a leader in the classroom, an encourager, a fighter of apathy, an advocate for my students and ultimately, someone who deeply believed in educational excellence for all children. It has provided me a launching pad to fulfilling and meaningful work. And now, I’m getting the chance to partner with others across classrooms and in my community to help a new generation of students have the same opportunities I had.

My students in Charlotte faced many additional challenges of poverty, but they’ve shown me that with dedication and hard work from both myself and them, they could overcome almost anything.

After years and years of low expectations for Arianna, the time had come for her to know that if she didn’t “get it,” it was not going to be OK until she did “get it.”  

Once separated from her rambunctious, boy-crazy friends, she stood out in my class as a student who would excel to great heights if given the proper environment and additional opportunity for study. Out of all 75 of my students, Arianna grew the most — 3.5 years of growth in just one academic year.  

For too long, one’s zip code has defined destiny. But we know that with an all-hands-on-deck approach, educational inequity is a solvable problem. With the commitment of educators and leaders across all sectors, we can give all of our children an excellent education.

While Teach For America members start by making a two-year commitment, the experience has a lasting impact. As members of a broader community, my fellow TFA alumni and I are working with other teachers, parents, administrators, community members and policymakers in the pursuit of excellence for all students. 

I know the difference I made in the lives of my students, and I know the transformational impact the experience had on me.

Knowing that we can close the achievement gap, I simply can’t walk away from this work. As you think about the role you will play in the broader world upon graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts. I encourage you to apply to join our movement to give all students an excellent education by Oct. 26.

Erika Berry is a 2008 Ole Miss graduate. She is also a former vice-president of the Associated Student Body.