Interview by Jonathan Boes.
Patrick Henry College
Michelle Wright (Government, '11)
What led you to become involved with Teach for America?
I never, in a thousand years, imagined that I would become a teacher. I majored in International Politics and Policy at PHC and actually came very close to completing the Journalism major. The short explanation to landing my first out-of-college job as a seventh and eighth grade math teacher is God.
The longer answer: my parents started foster care when I was in high school. I loved growing up in a fluid family and will always have a heart for inner-city kids. I knew that I would get back to the inner city; I just never thought that I would go back as a teacher, or so soon! Last spring, in the middle of searching for jobs, my roommate, Susanna Foote, and I decided to apply together. Teach for America allows you to “highly prioritize” seven cities [you would wish to teach in]. After choosing six cities where I had friends and family, I decided to put down Nashville for the country music. God opened all of the doors for me to move down to Nashville and I just knew that—though it was not completely logical—this was where I was supposed to go. It’s like Isaiah said: “You will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way. Walk in it!’” Starting the year as a new teacher
Starting the year as a new teacher
Teaching in an urban school has been my most challenging adventure to date. Our kids are years behind academically, and many have at least one parent in jail. Another teacher and I were actually counting the other day and realized that, out of our nearly 400 seventh and eighth graders, we could only think of ten kids that lived with both parents. All ten were immigrant kids. We estimate that at least one-third of our students are already sexually active (becoming a "baby daddy" is a big rite of passage for our kids). And my days are filled with a fair share of fights and drama.
Initially, I found it really challenging to earn the respect of the students. All teachers at my school will agree: our students will only work for teachers that they like and respect. On my first day of school, most of the kids thought that I was a student. They couldn’t understand why I would teach in their school, and they had little respect for anything I said.
By the end of the second week, I adopted a deaf ear to being cussed out, and was just grateful for having a slightly easier time than the teacher across from me. She had to go to the doctor after being repeatedly punched in the face by a student. To be honest, I barely remember the first couple of months. I think I have just tried to forget.
But you know, I would not trade this experience for anything. A veteran teacher encouraged me to coach sports at the beginning of the year, and it was the best advice she could have given me. After I coached a season of soccer, followed by a season of cheerleading (which meant attendance at every basketball game), the kids decided that they liked me. As any teacher in my school will admit, our students are very comfortable failing and will only work for teachers that they like. I almost cried the first time one of my male students shoved another boy into the lockers shouting, “You can’t talk to her like that! That’s MY teacher!” It still makes my whole face smile every time I have a kid stand up for me instead of against me. Now that we have moved past the initial rough months, my students have made amazing progress and are outperforming veteran teachers' students. That part of it has brought out my competitive side, and I love it!
At some point, the kids realize that you love them. After I endured weeks of abuse and disrespect, my students started to write me little notes that said things like “I like math because I know that you believe in me” and “I like coming to school because you work really hard to make me successful.” Wright and fellow grad Susanna Foote in fall of 2011
Wright and fellow grad Susanna Foote in fall of 2011
Both experiences were hard, but I think that teaching in a rough school has more pressure. Every day, I wake up to the reality that a high percentage of my students will drop out of school before high school. Although I am only one teacher, I am convinced that just one teacher can make that difference for some of our kids.
What experiences in your inner-city work have particularly impacted you? Have your presuppositions changed? What have you learned?
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned this year is the importance of taking every opportunity to get to know the kids as individuals. As the year has progressed, I have realized that most of our worst-behaved kids act the way that they do for a reason. For example, it’s not shocking that a kid with both parents in jail finds it hard to focus on school. He’s got bigger things on his mind. Once kids know that you care about the things that they care about, they are much more willing to attempt to value the things that you do. Instead of addressing the actions that I see, I have learned to ask more questions and try to understand.
As a Christian, I am convinced of my responsibility to see our kids the way that Jesus does. He sees their hurts, disappointments, distrust of adults, frustrations, and rage with compassion and a broken heart. He longs to be in relationship with the kids and has entrusted me with the privilege of showing Himself to them. Michelle and teammates from PHC at National Model United Nations competition in New York City
Michelle and teammates from PHC at National Model United Nations competition in New York City
As in any place of work, I am convinced that Christians have a responsibility to speak about their beliefs and share the Gospel with anyone who will listen. The students in our public schools are the next generation of athletes, parents, employees, and leaders. I think that far too many Christians have concluded that public schools are beyond redemption.
The best part about working in an urban school has been the opportunities that I have found to share the Gospel with the kids. I am 100% convinced that a relationship with Jesus is the only thing that will enable our students to "break out" of the ghetto. Although I was a little bit cautious about sharing my faith in a public school back in the fall, I have since become almost reckless about it. At Christmas, I gave every one of my 112 students a Christmas gift with a Bible verse tied on it. I leave my Bible on my desk all the time, and have told the kids that they are welcome to ask me about that at any time. Several students now attend church with me, and I am trying to find a way to get them to youth group midweek. My involvement with sports gives me a fair amount of time in the car with some of our student athletes, and they know that I am the teacher to bring up hard topics, like Jesus, marriage, integrity, college, etc. I have been blown away by how receptive the kids are to the truth and the uncompromising stand that I take on some of the issues of their culture. It is like that verse says! The harvest, indeed, is ready, but the workers are few.
Teachers often spend more time with kids than parents do. If I am not there to share my values and beliefs with the kids, someone else is going to be sharing theirs. Our students are usually talked to, but few adults take the time to talk with them. Every time I introduce a serious topic with one of the kids, they are so willing to listen. They often tell me, “You might be right, but you are the only one that thinks that!” These kids need more people who are willing to enter their lives, attend their sports games, take them to church, and show a genuine interest in them. Who should be more willing to step up to that than the body of Christ?
In the context of your inner-city work, what advice would you give to current PHC students (or students in general), especially those looking to become teachers?
I would definitely encourage anyone who is interested in teaching to consider giving a few years to work in an urban school. The time will change you. It’s really hard! But coming out of PHC, God has blessed us with so much—a Christian community, an education, and so many opportunities. It really is a privilege to pass some of that blessing on to God’s children.