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Teaching for America but longing for Haiti

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By ENO ALFRED

The English practice papers to prepare the kids for their standardized tests had been handed out and only a few of the fifth-grade students at P.S. 31 sat quietly at their desks listening to their teacher’s lengthy directions. Most of the 20 children talked so loudly that it was hard to hear the teacher’s instructions.

“Shut up Mohammad-doo-doo,” said a girl named Carmen, who had her name printed on her large pink and blue earrings.

“I don’t wanna do another stupid test,” said a small olive-skinned boy named Andrew who had already left his seat twice in less than 10 minutes to sharpen his pencil.

“When did she say we even have a test?” moaned a girl named Marie who sat alone at a single-seated desk, as did seven other children. The remaining 12 were evenly split onto two tables with six small chairs.

The teacher’s soft voice was no match for these uncooperative students’ abrupt questions and for a few minutes, the frown on her face made her seem just moments from shouting at her class in a way that was bound to get their attention.

“I’ll begin now…I’ll begin now…I’ll begin now,” she repeated, until finally a thick silence filled the room.

The silence lasted less than a minute. Marie publicly announced that she didn’t understand the test. Perhaps that was because she and Carmen had been discussing the color she would paint her nails.

It was to be another difficult morning for Teach for America recruit Jessica Jean-Francois, who at the age of 24, regularly goes to bed by 9 p.m. and rises at 4.20 a.m. to feel more prepared for hectic mornings like this one at the school on 250 East 156 St. in the Bronx.

Jean-Francois decided she wanted to launch her career in the classroom after spending a year abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She returned to complete her bachelor’s degree at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in economics and minored in statistics. A career on Wall Street would be a logical career path to take, but she discovered that business was not her passion.

“I like to go against the grain,” Jean-Francois said about her career choice.

Jean-Francois turned to education, because, she said, “It was the one thing that I could do that would make the most impact in everything that I thought about.”

Teach For America appealed to her because the average New York City Teacher Salary is $45,530 before taxes. She had accumulated thousands of dollars in debt from her undergraduate days and wanted to study while earning money.

Jean-Francois also liked Teach For America’s stated goal: to help close the academic achievement gap between poor and rich kids. The organization recruits recent college graduates like Jean-Francois to teach for two years in low-income communities throughout the United States in schools like P.S. 31, which is 66 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African-American. Ninety-two percent of the children are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, which provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For example a family of four that has an income at or below $28,665 a year would qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Jean-Francois was hopeful at the start of her journey. That has since changed.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Jean-Francois said.

Like many of her students, her life has had some rough moments. Jean-Francois was born in Dorchester, Mass., in 1986 to Haitian parents. Her mother and father were soon divorced and because money was tight, her mother sent her to live with an aunt in Haiti.

For the next seven years, Jean-Francois assembled memories in Haiti that she still holds dear. Her uncle taught her to ride a bike and play sports. Her aunt helped her with her homework. She played in their yard with her three cousins. When she was five, her older sister came to live with the family as well. But some of her best memories are of the classroom. “I went to a Catholic school,” Jean-Francois said. “I remember the uniform…friends, walking through the streets.”

Eventually, her mother moved to Florida and Jean-Francois and her sister would visit her on school vacations and briefly stay together as a family. But for the rest of the year, their only contact was through letters and phone calls.

“It was kind of like oh ok, now we go to Florida, ok now we go back home because that’s what I do, because I follow directions,” Jean-Francois said.

Constantly adjusting to different surroundings and people would prove to be valuable skills when she entered the classroom in the Bronx.

Jean-Francois’ reservations about Teach for America are not unique. Even people involved in the program concede that the work is extremely challenging. Scott Wolfson, an adjunct assistant professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, teaches an ethics class to Jean-Francois and other Teach for America recruits. He worries that too many idealistic young teachers get discouraged and leave.

“I think it’s great to bring new teachers into the field of education but I think more importantly what we need to do is keep them here,” he said. “Having a new stream of new teachers constantly is not particularly good for our children and for education in general.”

Many of the Teach for America recruits in Wolfson’s class said they were struggling. Some of the issues are bureaucratic. When they signed up, they hoped to teach elementary students but budget cuts led to a hiring freeze for all but a few subjects in New York City. Most of the jobs available were for middle school science and math teachers.

A program that enabled certified elementary teachers to teach middle schools in New York City was created to accommodate these new teachers. Instead of teaching little kids, Jean-Francois took a job as an eighth-grade math teacher.

“That first year in 2009 was very tough,” Jean-Francois said. “I would spend hours trying to figure out what to teach because I didn’t have a clear grasp on how to lesson plan for that grade.”

Nonetheless, Jean-Francois stayed on as an eighth-grade teacher in the school that was both a middle and elementary school until her assistant principal told her about an opening in fifth grade. Having struggled to manage her eighth-grade class, who saw her as simply the ‘nice’ teacher, Jean-Francois jumped at the opportunity to have a fresh start with new students.

But fifth grade has been just as challenging. On the day of the practice tests, Jean-Francois patrolled the classroom in an effort to keep the constant noise level down for the few students that were trying to complete the exercise.

Many of the students raised their hands to get help from the collaborative team teacher, a man, whose job was to provide support in the classroom that had a 40:50 ratio of general and special education students.

“That’s not dessert like food,” he said as he crouched down over Marie, who had blurted out her question. “That’s desert as to leave,” he said, while Marie giggled gently tapping her head.

“Being the only adult in the classroom means you can run things your own way but when you’re dealing with another teacher it can be challenging because it’s two voices in a room and things might not work out the way that you wanted them to,” Jean-Francois said.

Jean-Francois had refrained from sitting at her desk. It was piled with books and sheets and a Poland Spring bottle filled with a few coins with a sticker with “Hope for Haiti” written on it.

Even as she struggled with her classroom, thoughts of her earthquake-ravaged childhood home were on her mind. She knows that her uncle and some of her friends survived, but she hasn’t heard anything from her father.

“No news is good news right?” Jean-Francois asked.

Sometimes, she thinks she would do more good in Haiti than in the Bronx. She would like to return sometime this year and work in Haitian schools.

“I’m looking at what’s happened with the earthquake as a perfect opportunity to start from scratch,” she said. “Whatever happens now is going to mean so much for the future of what happens in Port-au-Prince and I want to be part of that.”

But for the moment, she’s still at P.S. 31. At lunch, she’s savoring her quiet classroom and happy to have survived the morning.

“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown and I feel more mature… but this experience was not supposed to be about me,” Jean-Francois said. “ It was supposed to be about what came out of it for students and to be honest I think I would have been better fit for another profession.”

A few minutes later, some of the children who had seemed to want to be anywhere but in the classroom returned to play Hangman on a small whiteboard while two boys begin a game of Uno with Jean-Francois.

Her time in the classroom has had some moments of joy as well as frustration.

“Now that I’m in it, I’m dedicated to it and I’m doing what I can. But if I knew then what I knew now, I never would have done it.”

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