The first Teach for America teachers in Oklahoma City are nearing the end of their tenure.
The national program has brought dozens of recent college graduates to teach in schools with some of the toughest academic challenges.
When Oklahoma City Public Schools opened for the spring semester Friday, it marked the beginning of the last semester for the inaugural group.
Some will stay in the classroom. The rest will go on to other careers.
Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Capitol Hill High School, isn't sure what he'll do after the school year ends. He may stay in education. He may go into policymaking or law.
But his experience as a teacher will always be with him. Teaching has allowed him to see how broader issues — immigration, human rights, poverty — affect education and how teachers battle those issues every day.
“Doing Teach for America changes how you see your role in the future,” he said.
In high demand
Oklahoma City Public Schools has 130 Teach for America teachers — 86 in their first year and 44 in their second year. Each teacher makes a two-year commitment to work in a school district in need, whether it's urban or rural. Teach for America provides training for their corps members along the way.
Teach for America teachers are in high demand, said Sandra Park, deputy superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools. Principals ask for them. Older teachers mentor them.
Administrators can use them to fill gaps in tough subjects or tough schools.
And the Teach for America teachers have an enthusiasm that's contagious.
“They're very, very focused on what differences they can make in a two-year time period before they move on,” Park said.
“They bring a whole different attitude about how they approach their work.”
Even those who don't make teaching a career can spend their lives helping children, Park said.
“We have a great opportunity for the corps members with Teach for America to spread the word across all walks of life that urban kids are just kids,” Park said. “They're just kids that want to be successful. They want to participate. They want someone to care about them.”
Swanson, the Capitol Hill teacher, said he hopes to see a ripple effect from Teach for America in Oklahoma.
Even those who don't continue teaching will be able to advocate for education as policymakers, parents, volunteers and community leaders, he said. They can join those who already work to help children.
“It's part of what can be a more unified movement,” he said.
For his last semester, Swanson is focusing on his students and helping them pass their classes and state-mandated end-of-instruction exams.
Last year, he taught juniors and seniors.
This year, he only has sophomores.
The bulletin boards of his chilly classroom are covered with vocabulary words reminders, like analyze and theme.
He said he spends about 75 percent of his class time focusing on reading and the other 25 percent on writing.
“A lot of my students, for them, English is a second language,” Swanson said. “That can be a difficulty, and it can be difficult to build student confidence.”
Cycle of self-defeat
For some, confidence is a problem. They aren't supported by their families at home.
They haven't had as much support in the classroom as they need. They don't believe in themselves. Swanson and other teachers try to break that cycle of self-defeat.
“All my students are capable under the right circumstances,” Swanson said.
He's gotten to know students personally. Some come from difficult and scary home lives. Others have survived harrowing pasts.
“It can be hard,” he said. “It also makes me respect them a lot. I see kids dealing with things that I don't know how I would handle. It's hard on one hand to see that, but for me, it makes it clear how important this work is.”