Back to school for Oakland’s youngest teachers
on September 3, 2009
Seventh grade life sciences teacher Pauline Filippou is not a morning person. But this does not keep her from getting up at 6 am every morning in order to arrive at James Madison Middle School an hour before the kids show up.
She gets ready quietly. Doing her hair, putting on her make-up, packing a brown bag lunch, complete with a cold Coke wrapped in a napkin to prevent condensation, Filippou tends to each act with concentration and deliberate motion. It’s the first week of the new school year, and breakfast is a Pop Tart and a red plastic cup of orange juice, which she sips on her 18-minute commute— she’s timed it —from Grand Lake to East Oakland.
Filippou is a fresh-faced 22-year-old with stylishly cut brown hair and a spray of freckles across her frank features. Last year was her first as a teacher, and she had her moments of doubt. “There were times, last year, when I’d drive past the garbage man and think, ‘I wish I had his job,’” she says.
Filippou, known to her students as “Ms. Fili,” is one of many young teachers employed by the Oakland Unified School District. Due in large part to the consistent presence of Teach For America since 1991, the teaching force in Oakland boasts a significant number of young teachers. Teach For America is a national nonprofit that trains recent college graduates to be teachers and places them in low-income school districts.
Teach For America placed 86 teachers in Oakland during the 2008-2009 academic year, and the organization has teachers in 42 OUSD schools this year. Though over 60 percent of the group’s alumni stay in education after completing their initial two-year agreement, the program often catches flack for not promoting teaching as a lifelong career among all of its members. This criticism has not deterred Madison’s principal, Dr. Lucinda Taylor, who reports that eleven of her seventeen teachers are current or recent Teach for America corps members.
“I am a huge advocate and supporter of TFA,” says Taylor. “I believe in the process and the protocol for training and finding experienced young people who are very educated. They are energized and excited about coming to school. They’re lively, they’re energetic, and they’re fun to be around. This really works well for my climate.”
Like all schools that are targeted for teacher placement by Teach For America, James Madison Middle receives Title 1 federal funding, which schools may apply for if over 40 percent of the student body is considered low-income. Whether a student is low- income is determined by his or her eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches. At Madison, 86 percent of students fall into this category.
Once at school, Filippou purposefully moves through a well-developed routine. Before even sitting at her desk, she writes the day’s objective on the board: “I can.” Teach For America promotes the educational philosophy that teaching students that they are capable and that they can achieve will help them rise to the challenge of learning difficult material. On Wednesday, Filippou plans to lead her students to the objective of stating “I can be a scientist” by teaching them about famous scientists and enforcing the idea that, as she wrote on her whiteboard earlier this morning, “anyone who asks questions and finds out answers about the world around them through experiment is a scientist.” She makes a point of teaching about scientists like George Washington Carver, an African-American man, born into slavery, who invented crop rotation, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut.
“You ask them to draw a scientist and they will draw an old white guy, with white hair, a lab coat, and goggles,” Filippou says. “It’s very stereotypical for them. I want them to see that anyone can be a scientist.”
Her bright, colorful classroom is filled to bursting with the concept, “I can be a scientist.” Against one wall stands a skeleton dressed in a lab coat and wearing a golden National Honor Society rope. Posters proclaim encouraging messages like, “You are a member of the high school class of 2015!”
The wide, bright hallways of James Madison Middle School echo the spirit of Filippou’s room. Photos of black and Hispanic role models are posted throughout, mirroring the make-up of the student body, which is 34 percent African American and 60 percent Latino. With only 311 students, Madison is one of the new “small schools” that have sprung up in Oakland over the past five years. The small school movement holds that students do better when they are part of smaller, more tight knit communities, and it has taken deep root in Oakland.
Filippou is still a very new teacher, but she no longer wishes to trade places with the garbage man. In fact, she’s considering signing on for a third year at Madison. “The way this year is going, it’s not bad, it’s fun,” she says. “I can definitely see how this is a sustainable profession.”
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