What Teresa taught me

By Kathryn Madden Anderson (Los Angeles '08)

When I applied for and joined Teach For America, I knew it was going to be a challenging experience, one that would push me to my act on my strongly held beliefs about social justice and equity. I knew it wasn’t enough just to TALK about the issues. I knew it would take ACTION to truly make change. I arrived at summer training full of conviction, but more than a little nervous…

Summer training was a blur, but I clearly remember standing up in front of classroom of students for the first time and how nervous I was as I introduced myself as “Ms. Madden” for the first time. I learned more in those 6 weeks than I have ever learned in my entire life. The learning curve was steep and I remember spending hours upon hours reworking my lessons, putting into practice the feedback that I received, and getting to know my students.

On the first day of school, I met Teresa. Before I met her I learned that Teresa was one of my students with special needs that had been mainstreamed in the general education setting. Her educational history told me that she was reading and writing at a 6th grade reading level, even though she was in 10th grade. I also read about how Teresa had a history of being disruptive in class. She had been diagnosed with a visual processing disorder, meaning that she struggled to comprehend information that was written.

Teresa was hard to miss when she entered my classroom. She had an incredibly bright smile. In fact, it was rare to see Teresa with a frown. Teresa waltzed right into my room and began chatting with her neighbors, walking around the room distracting others. She loved to call out during lessons and had a hard time with impulse control – she would say whatever came to her mind and was rarely in her seat. She hardly ever completed her reading assignments and didn’t turn in essays. Oftentimes during that first month, period 3 would end and I would feel absolutely destroyed. I felt like a failure for not being able to control my classroom, meet the needs of Teresa, and ensure I was paying attention to other students in my classroom as well…. I felt lost.

When I went to my principal for advice, he told me to kick Teresa out of class. If she was being a distraction to others and not meeting my behavior expectations, she shouldn’t have the privilege of being there, he said. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something within my power to change the situation. Kicking Teresa out of class would mean she would miss significant class time which would put her further behind…I knew there was a solution beyond just limiting Teresa’s time in the classroom.

Everything changed when I introduced our drama unit. I told my students for the next 6 weeks, we would be reading a famous play, “Fences” by August Wilson. As soon as I said the word “play” Teresa’s eyes lit up. She was the first one to volunteer to read aloud and act out scenes. She brought life and energy to Wilson’s words and helped her fellow students grasp the material. Even though her low reading level meant that she struggled over words and fluency, I could tell that by acting out the material, she could comprehend the material better. She told me that before school she would practice the lines of the main character, Troy, so that she could perform in class. Gradually, her fluency improved and she worked tirelessly with me before and after school to improve her writing.

I learned that Teresa was truly a kinesthetic learner that was motivated by material that spoke to her and felt relevant to her life. Though we didn’t always read plays in my class, I learned how to meet Teresa’s needs. Teresa became my “go to” helper in the classroom. She needed frequent breaks to refocus and would help pass out papers and put up posters which would get her moving around the room. We used a post-it note system so that she getting feedback and reminders about her behavior - a pink post it note on her desk meant that she was doing great, a blue post it note meant she needed to remind herself of the expectations for the activity. That system allowed Teresa to get the feedback and reminders she needed and it allowed me to wordlessly give that feedback and reminder without stopping class.

Throughout the school year, Teresa continued to improve and became a voracious reader, fueled by a desire to read material that spoke to her own experience. Her hard work paid off. On the end of the year reading exam, she made 2.5 years of reading growth and was writing five paragraph essays.

My experience with Teresa taught me that the opportunity gap can be closed if we truly put the needs of students first. It can be closed if we work relentlessly to provide a quality education to students who have been ignored by our nation for too long. It can be closed by truly getting to know our students, by teaching material that means something to them.

If you're interested in sharing your story with the TFA-LA alumni community here on Alumni Voices, contact Helen Hong, Associate of Alumni Leadership & Engagement.