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SC native 'filling the void' as a Mississippi teacher for TFA

Courtesy photo
South Charleston native Kinsey Walker, 22, works with her kindergarten class in Hazelhurst, Miss. Walker is in the Mississippi Delta as a Teach for America teacher and hopes the program will come to West Virginia to help "fill the void" and need for additional teachers across rural counties.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Kinsey Walker began teaching kindergarten in Mississippi, she had to adjust to many things -- the first being the honesty of a 5-year-old child.

"When you are 5, you don't really have a filter," Walker said with a laugh. "You know if they say it, they probably really mean it."

Walker, a 22-year-old South Charleston native, has been teaching in Hazelhurst, Miss., since July, when she started as a Teach for America teacher.

Teach for America is a competitive AmeriCorps-style alternative teaching program that recruits top college graduates to teach in some of the most underprivileged school districts in the nation for two years.

As a kindergarten teacher, Walker said her students see her as "a second mom. It's been interesting to be so motherly.

"When they do things, they get so excited and say, 'I'm smart,'" she said. "Hearing them say they can do something and have that self-affirmation is a great feeling."

Walker said many students in the Mississippi Delta and other rural areas, such as in West Virginia, come in to school "as real statistics. They are two years behind and they have these benchmarks to meet.

"When they do something right, and they have that self-confidence at 5, that is what wakes me up every morning," Walker said.

Walker was majoring in philosophy and pre-law at the College of Wooster, near Cleveland, when she watched "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that analyzes the failures of the American public education system by following several students who are trying to be accepted into a charter school.

"There was so much going on outside of West Virginia that I would have never known about," she said. "It really woke me up."

Teach for America, founded 21 years ago, has been in the Mississippi Delta for 20 years and has teachers in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Ideally, Walker would have liked to be stationed in West Virginia, but Teach for America is not organized within the state.

Teach for America did open an Appalachia branch in April 2011, with 30 members serving as first-year teachers in some of Eastern Kentucky's highest-needs schools. TFA has said it plans to bring 90 teachers to understaffed schools in the area in the next three years.

However, the program can't take off in West Virginia because state law doesn't allow for nontraditional teachers, Heather Deskins, general counsel for the state Department of Education has said.

State law requires a new alternatively certified teacher to have 18 hours of training as a teacher and a bachelor's degree in the subject area they want to teach.

"There is still no viable alternative teacher pathway, and that's obviously a barrier to TFA," Natalie Laukitis, TFA's director of regional communications, has said previously. "That barrier is fairly concrete. Unfortunately, there's been no real movement in West Virginia on that piece."

Additionally, West Virginia's two main teacher unions oppose hiring TFA teachers.

"I personally don't believe in Teach For America," Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association said earlier this week.

He said it would be "lowering standards" to let Teach for America teachers into classrooms.

Laukitis said Friday that the perception that TFA teachers are not as qualified as traditional certified teachers is not true.

"They are held to the same standards as every other teacher and go through the same hiring process," she said. "If they do the job wrong, he or she is held to the same retribution.

"Part of the desire to work in West Virginia is really to help. We know there is a high need in classrooms across the state, and there are plenty of great veteran teachers and new members who are working to ensure all kids get a great education. We are certainly not going to be some silver bullet that comes in and changes everything, but we want to be part of it."

In the past few years, state lawmakers passed two bills aimed at easing requirements for people to join the teaching force, HB4010 and HB4122. Both bills create the opportunity for alternative teaching paths but do not allow teachers who majored in math to teach English, or vice versa.

Details would need to be ironed out in the state code, and Laukitis said TFA "is trying to figure out what would be the best path," in West Virginia.

In 2011, there was a statewide shortage of 690 full-time teachers.

That is one of the reasons Walker wants to see TFA in West Virginia.

"Students in West Virginia should have the choice to get an amazing education," she said. "With a lot of vacancies, particularly in rural counties, we just don't have enough people to draw from. I think the extra support from TFA would fill that void."

Teach for America "gives people like me, who really didn't understand the serious issues that our country has with education until college -- when it was almost too late for me to change my major and stay in school for four more years -- the opportunity to be part of change," Walker said.

She whole-heartedly supports the program.

"They are motivated people," she said. "They don't just sign up for something to do. These are people who want to make a difference."

Walker started looking into the organization during her sophomore year. She expressed an interest in teaching in rural areas and, after graduating from Wooster, was placed in the Mississippi Delta Teach for America Institute in July 2012.

The rigor of teaching summer classes during the day and taking classes at night "was a lot of work, but worth it. There were people there that watch us teach and critique us the entire time," Walker said. "It's not easy."

Walker interviewed for a kindergarten position alongside teachers who had a traditional teaching education. She was selected and started teaching her class along with a co-teacher in August.

"It's the same process. You aren't treated any different if you're a TFA teacher or a regular-route teacher," she said. "Ultimately, it's up to the schools to decide if they want you."

Right now, Walker loves her class in Mississippi and "wouldn't change it for the world," but after her two-year contract, she wants to come back to West Virginia if the opportunity arises.

"Kids in West Virginia should have the same access to education as anyone else," Walker said. "If there was a way to have an alternate route to education, it would bring more people back to the state.

"The real goal is putting dedicated people in classrooms for our kids. I think that great teachers have come from both [paths], so why should we not pull teachers from both for our state, like the rest of the country already does."

Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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