Special education teacher finds purpose in Watts

imageAt 22 years old and standing just over five feet, Avery Seretan is sometimes mistaken for a student. She’s actually a ninth-grade special education teacher in Watts. And depending on the day, she’s also a mother, confidant, guardian and referee for her students.

Today is a “good day” at the charter school College Ready Academy High School #11. As students yell out questions, Seretan patiently reminded them to raise their hand, and when they do, she answered their queries. Some of the questions were about the English lesson, but for the most part students wanted personal details about their teacher.

“Miss, are you married?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Miss, do you have a boyfriend yet?”

“Yes,” Seretan said, and after that admission, she quickly scolded her students to pay attention to their lessons before they could ask any more questions. Later, she laughed as she explained some of the more personal questions her students have asked.

“They are in ninth grade, so they know about sex and drugs and, in some ways, have a broader life experience than myself,” Seretan said. “But I still see them as my kids and when they ask those questions I’m like that’s totally inappropriate. I immediately change the subject.”

Teaching ninth graders at a charter school in Watts isn’t always funny questions and laughter. Each day, Seretan deals with the pressure of helping her students succeed in a neighborhood affected by gang violence and crime. She works as a special education teacher, helping special needs students with English and math.

Some students have learning disabilities, reading and writing at a second grade level. Others have behavioral disorders that have led to violence in the classroom.

“They all have different personalities and tick in different ways and you have to respond to them very differently,” Seretan said.

Working for a charter school in South Los Angeles isn’t what Avery imagined as her first job after college. A year ago, Seretan said her plan was to graduate, travel and eventually move to Washington to pursue a job in politics.

“I definitely don’t see myself teaching, but I always saw myself doing some type of community work to give back in some way,” Seretan said.

Born and raised in Seal Beach, Seretan was educated in private schools most of her life. She went to a private middle school and all-girls, Catholic high school before attending the private University of San Diego. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science, but decided she wanted to give something of her time and self before pursuing her dreams in Washington, D.C.

As a senior, Seretan was recruited for the Teach for America program. Teach for America has a reputation as a competitive and extremely demanding program. It was a challenge Seretan couldn’t resist.
She applied and was accepted to teach in Los Angeles. Seretan said it is her biggest achievement so far.

“I’ll never forget that it was Nov. 10 and I got an email from [Teach for America] saying I was accepted and I was so excited,” she said.

With one semester of teaching under her belt, Seretan is confident in her teaching and her students. She said the first semester was difficult and things can only improve in the future.

She still plans to travel and live in Washington, but now they come second to the hopes she has for herself and her students while teaching.

“For me, I want to be content and happy with what I’m doing and then push these kids forward,” she said. “They have no options, they need to focus and get out of Watts. I want to get my kids out of Watts and have a better life.”

Until then, she says Washington can wait.

Teach for America volunteer brings Kentucky background to South L.A.

imageClassroom T-12 at Lou Dantzler Preparatory High School in Los Angeles is hidden within an urban maze of chain link fences, Port-o-Potties and portable classroom sheds called bungalows. But inside the makeshift-learning hub, a focused group of 12th grade English students works diligently on their research paper rough drafts, as the inspirational Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror” fills the room.

Their teacher’s white skin, pearl earrings and Kentucky twang immediately identify her as the outsider among a group of about two dozen African American students. Leaning over a cluster of desks, teacher Taylor Miller examines one of the rough drafts through her trendy eye-glasses before returning the paper to a male student nearly twice her size and uttering a sincere yet playful warning, “The beauty and eloquence of your writing needs to bring me to tears and then you’ll get your points back.”

Born and raised in a small suburb outside of Owensboro, Kentucky, 23-year-old Miller was expected to follow suit with her classmates and become the next generation of teachers and factory workers in their community.

“It’s a very small town mentality, people don’t really want you to leave, they don’t value world education, world culture and understanding,” explained Miller during her lunch break. “But I was just always itching to get out. I felt like people needed to see something and I knew there was something else out there.”

In her senior year at the University of Kentucky, Miller found out about the Teach for America program and its goal of closing the achievement gap in America’s failing public school system.

“I really just felt like I had some sort of calling to do that,” said Miller.

The program looks for the best and brightest college graduates in the country, gives them a crash course in teaching, and then places them in schools located in historically low income, minority communities for a two-year period. Each year the program only admits about 12 to 15 percent of the over 47,000 college graduates who apply, said Recruitment Director Tracy St. Dic.

Though applicants are given the opportunity to rank their preferences for assignment location, Miller decided to leave her destination up to fate.

“I thought that if I didn’t leave it to chance, I was going to go somewhere that’s comfortable. I wanted to go where I was needed,” said Miller whose parents were supportive but apprehensive of where she’d end up. “I think this was their biggest fear: L.A.”

Though Miller was prepared to go wherever she was needed, she admits that never in a million years had she considered the possibility of being sent to Los Angeles. She remembers just staring at her computer screen for about 30 minutes without speaking when she read her acceptance letter and placement location online.

“It was the unknown and people were like, a girl from rural Kentucky is never going to make it there. They’re not going to respect you, they’re not going to listen to you,” said Miller, who partly accepted the position in Los Angeles so she could change the minds of her community members. “A huge motivation was dispelling stereotypes that I grew up with about people of color and children of color, that people from my hometown I think still have.”

Several months later, she was on a plane bound for the other side of the country, and just days after, that she was in the classroom, teaching summer school. Teach For America’s training starts with what’s called the “summer institute,” where new corps members spend their mornings team-teaching summer school classes, and their afternoons in class themselves, soaking up new methods for teaching and classroom management.

“The institute will teach you everything you need to know to walk into the classroom on the first day, but nothing will prepare you for your first full day of teaching,” said Miller, as she recalled applying teaching methods in her summer school classroom just hours after learning them for the first time.

“It’s kind of traumatizing when it’s happening, but by the end of the summer, you have your own way of teaching and you’ve found what works for you and what doesn’t.”

With only a summer’s worth of experience and training, Miller got her first real class of ninth grade English students last year.

“The kids know a first-year teacher, they smell a first-year teacher and they have told me that they feel like it’s their responsibility to break in new teachers,” said Miller,

Miller said she was grateful to start with teaching ninth graders before moving up to the twelfth graders she teaches this year.

“They were easier to handle because it was their first year of high school too, and they were younger and still squirrelly, so I kind of had a little bit more authority.”

The “little bit of authority” she did have in her first year of teaching was often questioned when her students would ask her why she was so young, why she was white, why she had a southern accent and why she was their teacher.

“They couldn’t understand why I was harping on them so much and why I cared so much,” said Miller. “So I did this whole lesson on the achievement gap and where they fall on the scale and told them why we had to change this. It was like a complete turn around in their realization.”

Even when she was able to reach her students, there were days when that just didn’t seem like enough.

“I was an emotional wreck last year. It becomes this all-consuming, you have to save the world, it’s on your shoulders,” said Miller. “You have to learn that you can’t save everyone and not everybody needs to be saved. You have to just tell them what you know and give them an opportunity.”

More than a qualified teacher, Ms. Miller said her students just need a role model who believes in them. According to the Teach for America website, only half of students in low-income communities will graduate high school by age 18, and those who do graduate will perform on average at an eighth-grade level. With only one semester left in her two-year commitment to Teach For America, Ms. Miller’s goal is now to convince her AP English Language and Composition students that they are smart enough and capable enough to take the Advanced Placement test in May.

image“Right now, they see it as a demoralizing test that costs them money, and that they will get nothing out of,” said Miller. “That is the problem, this lack of confidence in what they can become and what they can achieve, and that is a battle I fight every day.”

According to her students, that fight doesn’t go unnoticed in her classroom.

“Ms. Miller is an excellent teacher, she influences you, she’s easy to talk to, and she doesn’t look down us,” said one of her twelfth grade students, Kayla Perry.

Student Jasmin Coleman added Ms. Miller has been a positive influence in her life not only as a teacher but as a friend and a mentor.

Similarly, twelfth grader Kenny Miller praised Ms. Miller as a wonderful teacher and one of the few who truly understands him.

While such praise would be gratifying enough, Miller is also looking to expand her impact on the Teach For America program in her last semester as a junior recruiter. Although she’s already recruited some of her friends from back home in Kentucky, she admits it hasn’t been easy to convince highly ambitious future leaders to spend two years in the classroom before starting their lives.

“A lot of people are like I don’t want to be a teacher, so I’m not going to do TFA,” said Miller. “But it’s not necessarily as much about the teaching as it is about the change and what can you do long-term.

“Being in the classroom for just two years, you learn so much from the ground level about the inequities these children face on a daily basis and then you spend the rest of your life working to correct it.

So in addition to whatever amazing thing you were already going to be, now you also have a passion for education that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life.”

Recruitment Director St. Dic said that while a third of their alums do choose to stay in the classroom after their two-year commitment, the goal of the program isn’t just to produce teachers, “We are looking to build life-long educational advocates.”

The remainder of the Teach For America alumni, including prominent advocates for education like Senator Michael Johnson and former Washington Chancellor Michelle Rhee, leave the classroom after their two years and go on to make sweeping changes in the educational system through careers in law, policy, business, medicine and journalism. In fact, the Teach for America website lists over 200 graduate and law schools who actively seek Teach For America alumni and offer special benefits to them, including two-year deferrals, application fee waivers, and scholarships.

As for Miller, she sees herself staying on the Teach for America staff next year to help cultivate the next batch of corps members, and eventually becoming a writer of some sort. She acknowledges that no matter what she does in her future, Teach For America has changed her in ways she could have never foreseen as a college graduate back in Kentucky.

“I’m a completely different human now, just my thoughts about the world and what is really wrong and whose fault it is,” said Miller. “There is nothing I could have done at 22 or 23 years old right out of college that would have been more meaningful, powerful or impactful.”

OPINION: Remembering Reginald, what we owe him and the nation’s youth

Reginald was the first kid I cried over.

I was sitting in the back of my classroom at a South Los Angeles middle school. It was the summer of 2005. I was watching one of my fellow Teach For America teachers – or corps members as we’re known – lead the group of 20 7th graders though a lesson on similes and metaphors. We were here teaching summer school in preparation for our two year commitment with Teach For America. In August we would move to cities through out the country and teach in high-need school districts. We spent all morning teaching students and then all afternoon learning how to get better and raise expectations inside some of the nation’s failing classrooms. For most this was our first step into teaching and the five week institute was an intense preparation for the two year commitment ahead. We spent hours each day talking about curriculum needs, literacy strategies, lesson planning and diversity issues. Then we would return to our Cal State Long Beach dorm rooms and lesson plan through the night with fellow corps members.

I was crying in the back of that classroom because we finally tracked down our special needs student files. Reginald had a learning disorder. I’d spent three weeks as his teacher and this was the first I was learning of it. And he wasn’t the only one. Several students had individualized education plans. I’m not sure how much difference it would have made in such a short amount of time, but the shock of trying so hard to be prepared and yet never feeling ready overwhelmed me at that moment.

What I learned in South LA

I found several things during those five weeks in South L.A. I realized that I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by hundreds of other corps members, Teach For America staff and veteran South L.A. teachers who were dedicated to helping me be a better teacher. Each person had a drive to help our nation’s children succeed and there was an unbelievable sense that anything was possible. I found a passion inside myself that still drives me today, years later. It’s the memories I have with those 7th graders, and the two year experience teaching high school English in North Las Vegas, NV that pushes me to do more for education reform. I found a sense of life’s purpose in that middle school. And I promised myself that I would give everything I have for kids like Reginald.

We learned as much from our students. In a writing assignment for Teach For America, I observed that “every day my world is changed. These kids teach me more about myself, more about this nation’s expectations, and more about the country’s future then I ever imagined I would learn. And it has only been four weeks. I thought I came to Los Angeles to teach 7th graders, but there’s so much more to being a teacher. You spend time worrying about rules and consequences, kids who fall asleep, kids who miss school because their parents can’t get them there, and kids who’ve never been told by a teacher that they are worth something. I thought I was coming to Teach For America to help close the Achievement Gap, and then I met Reginald. Three weeks into the program I looked at his IEP (Individual Education Plan) and realized teaching is not about big posters and sticker charts. It’s about kids like Reginald, who’ve been labeled a discipline problem, stigmatized because of a learning disorder, and pushed through a system that isn’t willing to change, but thinks a 13-year-old boy should. Every day is a challenge, but I wake up and I board that yellow school bus for kids like Reginald, kids who deserve more than the world has given them.”

Kids are the same everywhere

I’ve since learned that kids in South L.A. aren’t that different from kids in Las Vegas or New York City or New Orleans. Kids are basically looking for the same things. They want someone to care. Someone who isn’t going to ignore the fact that they can’t read, that they come to school hungry, that their parents make minimum wage and don’t have health insurance. They want safe schools, principals who believe in their teachers, and teachers who believe in them. Kids want textbooks that make sense for the world they live in, they want a curriculum that challenges them and prepares them for an ever-changing global economy. They want the choices and opportunities that so many of us take for granted each day. They didn’t choose where they were born, so why should that dictate who they become?

Every morning during that summer my fellow corps members and I boarded school buses and drove from our dorms to the schools we had been assigned. It was probably the only time in those five weeks that we had some rest from the chaos of being new teachers. Many times we would sit near each other and go over lesson plans one last time, talk about assessments or find a home phone number for the kids who just weren’t behaving. But sometimes, we’d all just sit and relax. We’d stare out from those bus windows and think about our own lives. It’s impossible to not be changed by teaching. Most of us will never know what happens to the students we teach. That is because education is an investment. There is no quick fix; the solution to our education crisis is not paved in yellow brick. But I know we can do more. We must do more. We owe it to Reginald.

Shannon Mitchell is a 2009 public relations graduate of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. This opinion piece is an excerpt from her master’s thesis, “Teach For America: We Have Their Attention, Now Where Do We Go From Here?”