Catcher in the River 

Teacher Lina Shanley wants to change things. is Teach for America the way to do it?

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Another problem, she says, is once the teachers have earned some expertise, they leave. "A program like Teach for America brings people into classrooms," Hammond says. "Now how do we ensure that teachers get good professional development so that they master content and continue to stay past one or two years?"

Berkeley education professor Daniel Goldstein says that in California there is a dichotomy: the state is increasing the regulations that govern traditional teacher preparation programs at the same time as it expands programs like Teach for America that allow minimally trained people to enter classrooms. "Why would you have policies that simultaneously allow people with little or no preparation to go into teaching while increasing regulations on teachers who are getting credentials?"

Shanley believes some of her school's problems would be solved if the teachers would just stay longer. "I go back and forth with TFA," she says. "I wonder if it's just a Band-Aid, and if the money, training, and effort could be better spent creating lifelong teachers. But the teachers that go in learn so much. Still, what this school needs is long-term teachers. TFA doesn't provide that."

Of the eight Teach for America instructors who taught at Madison last year, five completed their two-year commitment and moved on; two first-year teachers left Madison for other schools. And one quit after only a month.

Shanley has often thought of quitting. "I think everybody gets to this point where they're like, is it worth it or not?" she says over coffee in the teachers' lounge. "You want to stick it out, but sometimes I think a lot more people should leave than do. It's hard on people to do this job."

Madison's principal, Joanna Lougin, has worked with Teach for America for a decade. She concedes that the constant turnover can be a challenge. "It's difficult when a school has eight or nine of them and they all leave at once. It leaves a big hole."

Still, she says, hiring TFA instructors is worth it. "They'll work hard, and Teach for America will support them," she explains.

From the beginning of her time at Madison, Shanley has been proactive in her school, assuming leadership roles, advocating on behalf of her students, even coordinating the yearbook.

At the beginning of the school year, Shanley was assigned to be a roaming teacher because she only had seventeen students. She had to travel to different classrooms with a cart carrying her supplies. "The schedules were complicated. I had to come in, get everyone settled, and prepare the room before I could even begin to teach. To me, this was unacceptable. My kids lost important learning time."

So Shanley went to bat for her students. She wrote letters to her principal, the superintendent of schools, and other school officials. Finally, several weeks into the year, she was given a classroom. The room has no computers, and she shares it with another teacher, but she is proud of this accomplishment.

It's this take-charge tendency that Shanley says sets Teach for America educators apart. "I think some teachers who plan to be career teachers take the first couple of years to really get settled with the content of their curricula. But TFA teachers only have two years, so I think we want to try everything and make as much of an impact as we can on the school."

It's evening, and Shanley pulls papers out of her bag to correct on the floor of the studio apartment she shares with her boyfriend. Fellow Teach for America instructor Adam Kupersztoch -- who teaches sixth grade at Robinson Middle -- has just dropped by to play Scrabble following Wednesday night bowling with the teachers' union team.

Even in her down time, it's hard for Shanley to get away from teaching. Her free time is limited, and she has just moved to a new city, so most of her friends are in the Teach for America corps. And sometimes this can get to be too much. When the other two first-years were struggling at Madison last year, Shanley had trouble keeping up her own momentum. "It got to the point where I couldn't talk to them anymore because it would make me so miserable."

Still, socializing with others in the group can give Shanley the pick-me-up she needs when she gets burnt out. Last year, she and her former roommate -- also a Teach for America educator -- kept a quote board across one wall of their kitchen on which they would record the funny and poignant things their kids said.

Shanley laughs as she remembers one student with whom she really struggled. "We have the same birthday, October 15. He was one of my all-time favorite kids, but he always got in trouble. I've been to his home probably thirty times. He always says, 'Ms. Shanley, we have the same birthday -- do you have this problem that you get out of your seat and dance around?' And I'd say, 'No, that's not a problem I have.' "

Such relationships ultimately propel Shanley forward. However, as she nears the end of her commitment, she is not sure what her next step will be. "It's harder. I see more of the picture now, but I see good things that are happening," she says. She is considering going for an administration or a special education degree at an Oregon university. However, Shanley knows Ms. Lougin would like her to stay a third year at Madison. "I think Ms. Lougin prefers me to teachers that she really struggles with. I do my work and work hard," she says, pausing. "Then again, maybe another teacher would stay longer."

This is the tension that weighs on her conscience. Shanley still wants to create change, but she wonders if that change comes from continuing to work in her classroom, or from pursuing more traditional models of reform.

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