RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Teach for America is the program that sends promising idealistic young people to teach in some of the nation's toughest schools. This year, recent college graduates flooded the program with applications.
In the latest report in our series on teaching, NPR's Larry Abramson profiles one new teacher.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Isaac Bildersee Middle School in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. Tim Cooper, a six foot four, baby-faced blonde from Ohio is teaching his science students how to weigh a beaker of water.
Mr. TIM COOPER (Teacher, Isaac Bildersee Middle School): What happens if I put the cup and the water on this triple beam balance? What am I getting the mass of?
Unidentified Group: The cup and the water.
Mr. COOPER: Yeah, I'm getting the cup and the water.
ABRAMSON: This classroom hums with Brooklyn attitude, but Tim Cooper commands respect even though he's only been a teacher for a grand total of six weeks.
Mr. COOPER: You hear the sound of my voice clap once. You hear the sound of my voice clap twice. You hear the sound of my voice clap twice.
(Soundbite of clapping)
ABRAMSON: The principal of the school tells me newbies have the toughest time with classroom management. Tim Cooper is working on his own elaborate system of punishments and rewards. When kids pay attention, he hands out tickets. They're redeemable for a pizza party or some other treat. He got this idea by observing other teachers.
Mr. COOPER: So, I went to the math teacher, sat in his room one day and saw him handing out these tickets. I was like, ooh. I don't know if you noticed, but like, when I started throwing out tickets you saw everyone's heads perk up and go I want a ticket. So, I don't have to say anything, I don't have to raise my voice, I don't have to call kids out.
ABRAMSON: And that's how TFA is supposed to work. Tim Cooper learned on the job. He relies heavily on the many mentors and advisors the program and the school provide.
Mr. COOPER: Off to math. Off to math. Let's go. I'm a wizard. Go. How are you doing, Quanasia(ph)?
ABRAMSON: During a break in classes, Cooper makes sure kids are going where they're supposed to. He's already mastered the key task of learning kids' names, and he keeps up an easy patter with many of them.
Teach for America is highly selective. This past year, the program only had space for one out of seven applicants. TFA only takes on people who can work independently. Aylon Samouha, who manages the training program, says the five-week course the TFA teachers go through might not be enough for everyone.
Mr. AYLON SAMOUHA (Training Manager, Teach for America): This system is set up for folks who are high achieving and can take challenge really well and won't fold.
ABRAMSON: TFA teachers all have different stories, but most had a kind of epiphany. After studying biology at Dennison University, Tim Cooper worked in a biomedical lab for a couple of years, then he worked in the Ohio State Senate. All along, he felt the draw of teaching. TFA's quick path to the classroom spoke to his desire to get to work.
Mr. COOPER: For me, the choice was - I want to get into that classroom and I want to do it now. When I was working the Ohio Senate I saw firsthand, like, I had kids coming in and saying they hadn't had a proper science teacher in four years. It floored me. I was like, I can't wait for two years to get a Master's and then get into a classroom.
ABRAMSON: Now that Tim is here the big question is will he stay? Teach for America only requires a two-year commitment, but the organization has been working on that weak spot and now says that two-thirds of all core members have remained in education. Tim Cooper says he can't say for sure what he'll be doing for two years but he is committed to teaching.
The school's principal, Alex Fralin, says he had never hired a TFA teacher before Tim Cooper because retaining teachers is so important.
Mr. ALEX FRALIN (Principal, Isaac Bildersee Middle School): It's very important to me. That's actually probably the first, if not the second, question I ask them in an interview. I really look for a three-year minimum.
ABRAMSON: From anybody?
Mr. FRALIN: From anyone, particularly for new teachers �cause we spend so much time and so much money on their growth and development.
ABRAMSON: Others are concerned that TFA has raised unrealistic expectations. Ric Hovda, dean of the education school at San Diego State University, says he can't afford to recruit the way TFA can, such as conducting face-to-face interviews at schools around the country.
Mr. RIC HOVDA (Dean, School of Education, San Diego State University): Multimillions of dollars, most of them private dollars, are supporting Teach for America work. Not to discount what it is that they have accomplished, but it hasn't been without financial support, above and beyond what would typically be given to any other education enterprise.
Mr. COOPER: Absolutely, absolutely. Tell me what you're doing.
ABRAMSON: So, TFA may not hold the solution for reforming teacher education nationwide, but for individual schools and for individuals like Tim Cooper, it's a nice fit.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
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