Ben Schumacher has been in charge of Teach For America in Nashville for seven days. He’s already spent two of them talking with new recruits about police killings.
On Thursday, he joined TFA’s latest crop of teachers-in-training at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School, where they are working this summer as part of their crash course in how to teach in Nashville. The topic of conversation: the two killings of black men that are dominating headlines this week.
The teachers-in-training conferred about how the shootings might affect their students. Then they talked to the students themselves, nearly all of whom are black and who are making up credits so they can graduate from Pearl-Cohn on time.
The conversation was exactly what Teach For America has asked its regional teams to encourage as they prepare new teachers to enter schools that serve mostly poor students of color. The organization has long faced criticism — nationally and locally — for throwing teachers into challenging environments without enough training or local knowledge.
Schumacher said tackling the tough topic of police brutality was the right choice.
“We can’t not do these things,” Schumacher said. “It’s great for teachers to know their communities, history … and have a dialogue around current events.”
Diamond Bell, a rising senior at Pearl-Cohn, said some of her teachers don’t try to get to know students on a personal level. But her favorite teacher, Stephanie Dallery, is a TFA alumna who has encouraged Bell to run for positions in student government.
“The majority of the teachers here — they don’t just leave you out here by yourself,” Bell said. “They want you to be successful. They help me a lot.”
The conversations about connecting with students reflect just one of several shifts that TFA in Nashville is making to better prepare new teachers to meet the needs of local students. Two years ago, the group stopped sending local teachers to other states for training, instead conducting the summer training program in local schools and using local teachers as mentors.
The TFA chapter also added Donna Ford, a Vanderbilt University education professor who focuses on culturally competent teaching, to the training agenda. And this year, it is becoming one of the first TFA training grounds to add a program to prepare special education teachers.
The idea is that the better prepared teachers are for challenges in the classroom, the more likely they are to be effective and the more likely they are to stay, said Schumacher, whose own teaching career began through TFA in Nashville.
“We’re doing our damnedest to see an increase in the numbers staying in teaching,” he said.