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Date: 2010-01-14

Glen Rock natives both teach and learn from urban students

Teaching full-time in inner-city schools from early morning until early evening, plus two Saturdays a month during an extended school year, is not the first post-college career that jumped to mind when Jenna Pollack and Steve Kenny left Glen Rock to attend two of the nation's top universities. Yet both say they are pleased to be doing just that, and can't imagine doing anything else.

Pollack and Kenny are Teach for America (TFA) teachers recruited to work for two years in urban public schools. Members of the TFA corps are selected from among thousands of high-achieving applicants from top universities throughout the country.

Founded in 1990 by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA enlists outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income urban and rural public schools and provide the kind of high-quality instruction that is par for the course in wealthier school districts. TFA aims to prove that, when given the chance, children in under-resourced communities can succeed at high levels and pursue advanced opportunities in academic and professional realms.

Learning leadership in Indianapolis

Kenny, a 2004 graduate of Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell and a 2008 graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, said he first learned about TFA when he was approached by a recruiter on campus. As a history and government major, he had not given much thought to teaching, he said. His thoughts were more on shaping public policy.

"There were posters all over campus about Teach for America," he explained, "but it wasn't until a recruiter approached me that I realized I was interested."

Kenny said he was hooked by the chance to combine his interest in educational issues with his commitment to service.

"What I didn't expect was how competitive it would be," he said. The three-tiered interview process included a lengthy written application, a phone interview and a daylong in-person interview that required teaching sample lessons.

"When I found out I was accepted, I called my parents right away to tell them and my dad said, 'Oh, that's great but didn't you think you'd get in?'" he laughed. "I told him, 'No, it was a lot harder than I thought.' It was a lengthy process, but the focus was clearly on finding people who would be committed to teaching."

To his surprise, Kenny said, prior teaching experience was not a prerequisite. Although he had been active in borough, high school and college extracurricular and community activities, his teaching experience was limited to one year of teaching Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD).

In college he joined the Knights of Columbus and, "while not directly geared toward teaching," he said, "I had weekly service projects that I was required to complete."

According to the TFA's Web site, the program seeks applicants from all backgrounds and career interests who have demonstrated solid leadership qualities, achieved at high academic levels and overcome obstacles. Following acceptance into the TFA program, all new corps members attend a rigorous summer training program.

"They were definitely interested in how I handle challenges," Kenny said, "which made sense once I was actually teaching in a classroom."

TFA is part of AmeriCorps, the national service network, and currently places teachers in low-income school districts in 35 urban and rural areas. Once matched with schools, TFA corps members are hired as school district employees and receive the same salaries and benefits as other new teachers.

Kenny's first choice was to teach social studies in a middle school or high school in Newark. When the 2008-09 school year opened, however, he learned that there were no openings in that school district. Kenny said he remained open to placements in other participating New Jersey school districts, including Paterson and the Oranges, but no openings were available. He then learned that there was an opening at a charter school in Indianapolis, and he accepted it. "I didn't know anyone in Indianapolis, but the school is a KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] school, and I knew I would have support there," he said.

KIPP is a system of college preparatory public schools founded by two former TFA corps members. Most KIPP schools are charter schools. Kenny teaches sixth-grade humanities, a combination of social studies and literacy, at KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory, a tuition-free, public charter middle school.

"Most Teach for America placements are in traditional public schools," Kenny explained, "but with the rise of charter schools and school reform efforts, more corps members are being placed in charter schools."

Kenny admitted that his first few months as a new teacher were tough.

"When I first got there, because of all the delays in finding an opening for me, I was already the kids' third humanities teacher," he recalled. "The kids just assumed I wouldn't be staying and didn't hold back."

The biggest challenges were "getting the kids to trust me and getting a handle on classroom management," he said. Patience, a positive attitude, a willingness to make adjustments, and dedication to being a better teacher were the tools he said he used to turn the tide in his classroom.

"It was a rough start and it took time," he said, but by the second half of the year, "the kids were showing progress and I had a handle on classroom procedures and consequences."

Kenny said he was surprised by the leadership qualities required to be an effective teacher. "I never thought of a teacher as a leader until I was one," he said. "As a teacher, you're accountable for your students' results, you're managing a classroom and you're focused on getting everyone to reach their full potential." Being in a position of leadership "is very rewarding," he said. "In most early careers out of college you can't take a leadership role right away, but as a teacher you're immediately responsible and accountable for results."

Kenny said his experiences over the past 18 months have also given him a greater appreciation for the values he learned growing up in Glen Rock.

"I realize how lucky I was to have parents and teachers and a community that pushed academic values and the values that you need to succeed, like being dedicated, working hard and setting high goals for yourself," he said.

Kenny said it's amazing to see the impact that high expectations, family support and community support can have on a student. Giving kids who face a lot of challenges "the opportunity to succeed, and watching someone who has so much potential succeed, has really made me realize the importance of education in everyone's life," he said.

Kenny recently received high praise from an unexpected source.

"I overheard one of my students say, 'Mr. Kenny is strict, but he's goofy.' I like that description," he laughed, "because it shows I have high expectations, but I'm also a good guy."

High expectations in Newark

Pollack, a first-time teacher in Newark, can't say enough good things about her 25 kindergarten students. A 2005 graduate of Glen Rock High School, and a 2009 graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Pollack is a first-year TFA corps member teaching at SPARK Academy, a new public charter elementary school in Newark. SPARK is a free, public elementary school in the Newark TEAM Schools network and a KIPP public charter school.

Pollack first learned about TFA at the University of Michigan, where she majored in psychology. "The University of Michigan sends the most Teach for America recruits per year, so there was a lot of advertising around campus," she wrote in an e-mail. "I was interested in Teach for America because I had worked with children before, but I had never worked with underprivileged and underserved children. I saw Teach for America as my opportunity to work with young people who really needed a teacher who cared." Like Kenny, Pollack had no formal teaching experience prior to being accepted into the TFA program. She had worked closely with children as a tutor and a camp counselor, held leadership positions in high school and college, and been involved in several sports and community activities. She said her interest in working specifically with young children, however, crystallized when she led a discussion group for a college psychology class on volunteering in preschools.

"That is where my love for psychology and for teaching young children really came together," she wrote.

Pollack selected "Elementary-Newark" as her first choice of grade level and region when she completed the teacher training program this past summer.

"I was lucky enough to get my first choice of assignments in both location and grade level," she wrote. "I teach kindergarten to 25 beautiful five- and six-year-olds."

Pollack's kindergarten students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays for an extended school year. In addition, she wrote, "our school uses the co-teacher model, meaning there are two teachers in every kindergarten class. This allows my partner teacher and I to give each student more small-group attention."

Pollack. said having several colleagues who are also TFA corps members or alumni has made the challenging transition from student to teacher easier.

"I love being a Teach for America corps member because I have a built-in support system who understand how difficult yet rewarding this adventure has been," she said. "I live with two other Newark corps members, so having roommates who understand the time commitment and energy it takes to teach is very comforting." Pollack also credits "seeing optimism and potential in my students" with keeping her motivated as a new teacher.

"At SPARK Academy our students know and can tell you that they will be attending college in 2022. There is a true culture built around a love of learning that makes me excited to go into work every day," she wrote.

A love of learning is something with which Pollack has been long familiar. Less familiar, however, have been the challenges many of her young students face on a daily basis.

"Growing up in Glen Rock, I certainly have had different experiences than many of my students," she wrote. "At 23, I haven't been exposed to a lot of the terrible things my students have seen at the age of five. I am constantly reminding myself that although I need to be understanding of my students' situations, I still need to hold them to high academic and behavioral standards." In return, Pollack said, she is held to high standards as a new teacher and is responsible for achieving results.

"The students need a teacher who is willing to work long hours, plan extensively, give out their cell phone number, support their students inside and outside the classroom and hold them to the highest standards," she wrote. "Fortunately, I couldn't see myself working anywhere else."

Looking to the future

In her 2008 book, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America," journalist Donna Foote cites critics who protest that not enough TFA corps members remain in education past their two-year commitments.

Kenny and Pollack plan to remain closely linked with education once their two-year commitments are up.

"Teaching has been my dream for quite some time," wrote Pollack, "and I really feel like I have found my niche in urban education. I plan to continue teaching, and am excited to grow professionally alongside my network of schools, which will also expand and afford me new opportunities in the coming years."

Kenny said she will continue to teach, but has also started to think about attending law school. "My experiences have influenced me to stay involved with urban education," he said. "I want to focus on public policy as it relates to urban education. My perspective is so much deeper now than if I hadn't become a teacher. It's been difficult and challenging, but so many of my students have taught me so much about what it takes to succeed."

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