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An Activist in the Classroom - The Making of a Teacher


Chandra Williams

"It's not enough just to care. It's important to be an activist, to think about the curriculum, and be thoughtful about how I teach."

A TC student takes on stereotypes of race and ability by Roberta Salvador

Four years ago, Chandra Williams, 28, was teaching at R.H. Terrell Junior High, an inner-city public school in Washington D.C., when she overheard some of her eighth-grade students discussing their future. Their perceptions of the world were frightening. Having a baby wasn't expensive; you could rent an apartment for two dollars a month; college was unnecessary.

"They thought that working at McDonalds was going to earn them enough money to be all right," Chandra recalls. "So I created a game I called -'Reality Check.'" Chandra and her students used the Internet and local newspapers to learn the prices of apartments, food, cars and other necessities of life. They matched the numbers against the buying power of a minimum-wage job. Then they researched colleges and financial aid options, and wrote practice resumes and cover letters.
For Chandra, who is African American, her students' naivete was a classic reminder of how socio-economic conditions and culture can frame perceptions about money and achievement. Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland--one of the nation's wealthiest areas--she attended a high school where most of the students were white, and where it was assumed most would go on to college. Chandra, whose grades were slightly above average, wanted to be a cosmetologist, but her mother and stepfather had preached the importance of a four-year education. So she was stunned when a teacher told her she "wasn't college material."

"I was hurt and could not understand why she would just let me sit in her class and not make sure I was prepared for college," Chandra recalls.

With continued strong encouragement from her family, Chandra attended Howard University, graduating with a degree in business. She worked for a year as a finance officer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but found it unfulfilling. Thinking back to when she had worked in a day care center in high school, she decided to try teaching. That decision brought her to Terrell--with no training in how to create a curriculum, no experience managing a classroom, and no mentor to help her along.
"I was there from eight in the morning until eight at night, teaching myself while I was teaching them," she says. "Through the trauma and the crying, I still knew that I wanted to be a teacher. Finally, I said to myself, -'These kids deserve better.'" She researched the best graduate education programs, applied to Teachers College, and moved to New York in 2003 to begin the master's program in elementary education.

Not So Elementary

Chandra's experience at Terrell was no surprise to her professors in TC's Curriculum and Teaching Department.

"We're concerned by the way teaching is perceived today--the idea that -'anyone can teach' is out there," says Michele Genor, Assistant Professor of Education, who worked with Chandra in the Elementary Preservice Program. "But nine times out of 10 the person put in Chandra's situation will realize, early on, how important it is for them to have formal preparation for the classroom. They see that kids are being left behind, and that they themselves aren't equipped to prevent it."

Professor Celia Oyler, who coordinates the Elementary Education program, says the department looks for articulate people who write well and share the program's commitment to social justice. The expectation is that they will take the next step at TC by mastering skills like classroom management, lesson planning or personal time management. Sometimes it takes students awhile to appreciate the value of these tools.
"Usually it's only when they've been teaching for awhile that they come back and say 'thank you,'" Oyler says.
Perhaps because of her experience at Terrell, Chandra has been quick to appreciate her TC training. "Being here has made me rethink what it means to be a teacher," she says. "It's not enough just to care. I feel it's important to be an activist, to speak up, to think about the curriculum, and be thoughtful about how I teach."

During an elementary education class in April, the pre-service teachers were asked to demonstrate how curriculum resources could help teach ethnic diversity and inclusiveness. Students were asked to look at universal themes. Chandra and two fellow students chose money, analyzing how current teaching resources communicate information on the subject, as well as between-the-lines messages about class, gender and society. "Money ties together social justice, classism and mathematics," Chandra says. "For example, a lot of kids aren't aware of simple information about banks. They'll see friends and relatives go to check-cashing places, and pay high fees there, and just assume that's how it is."

Story Time

One morning in early May, Chandra summoned a combined group of first- and second-graders at Central Park East (CPE), the small school where she'd done her spring field placement, for story time. She distributed imaginary "listening hats" to the children and then began to read from The Reason for a Flower, by Ruth Heller, a brightly illustrated book about pollination and how seeds travel. After the lesson Chandra reflected, "I'm really sad. I'm going to miss them. Coming here was really the highlight of my year."

Chandra had applied to stay on and become a full-time teacher at CPE after graduation. She'd applied to other New York City schools, too, and was also contemplating a return to Washington D.C. In a sense, it may not matter--the seed has been planted; something good seems likely to bloom.

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