Teach for America participants educate area youth

Published 10:00 pm Saturday, October 6, 2012

Anne Smead explains how to divide fractions to one of her Algebra students at Selma High School. Smead is from Vernon, Texas, and recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in public administration. --Sarah Cook

Walking the halls of our community schools are young educators from around the country. One is from Arizona, another from Texas and Kentucky and even one from our home state of Alabama. And all of these young adults came in conjunction with the same organization — Teach for America.

TFA began 22 years ago with the mission of recruiting recent college graduates to serve as teachers in low-income communities. Selma, along with 12 other Alabama communities, was chosen to be a part of TFA in 2010. The state program began with only 30 members, but today boasts more than 120.

Since TFA’s arrival, the program has reached more than 8,200 students in rural and urban Alabama areas.

Email newsletter signup

Matt Dempsey, who recently began his second year with TFA in Selma, said teaching wasn’t part of his original career path while in college.

“During my college job I sat in a cubicle and I looked at excel spreadsheets all day, and it was terrible,” said Dempsey, who graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in marketing and management and a minor in Spanish.

But after participating in philanthropic organizations on campus, he discovered where his heart lied—educating those who need it most. Dempsey now teaches Spanish at Selma High School.

“I want my students to be competitive with any high school graduate in the country,” Dempsey said. “I want them to have all the skills they need to succeed in the world.”

After interviewing and being placed in a community, TFA participants sign a two-year agreement to teach in that community, although they have the option of staying longer.

For Anne Smead, who recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in public administration and a minor in community and civic engagement, TFA was something that struck a chord on a personal level.

“I’m from a rural town in Texas and I went to public school there all my life till sophomore year of high school when I transferred to a boarding school in Dallas,” Smead said. “I experienced firsthand the achievement gap from attending my school, I was behind in writing and reading and I had to take remedial classes in that.”

Smead now teaches ninth grade algebra at Selma High, and said it’s one of the most rewarding experiences to be a part of.

“One thing I want to instill in my students is that hard work equals results,” she said. “If they work hard, they can do anything they want to do.”

Both Dempsey and Smead agreed that although moving to a new town was a little nerve-racking at first, they have found a “home away from home” here in the Black Belt.

Shelby Vogl, who teaches physical science and chemistry at the high school, said moving to Selma was somewhat of a culture shock, coming from a large town in Arizona, but she’s enjoyed it so far.

“The one thing that I noticed that I really like is just how much people in Selma love Selma,” Vogl said. “The people here are so loving and just love where they are. It’s contagious.”

This group of educators has affected even Selma’s youngest students. Rebekah Beason, Alabama native and Auburn graduate in early childhood education, spends Monday through Friday teaching a class of kindergartners at Edgewood Elementary, a group she has dubbed “the busy bees.”

“I saw the opportunities offered by TFA and I knew I wanted to use my skills to give back to the state of Alabama,” Beason said. “Everyday has definitely been an adventure.”

Since the 2012-2013 school year is still in it’s beginning months, all four teachers said they’re still waiting to see where their TFA journey will lead them, and what kinds of lessons they will learn along the way—“ I’d like to believe that this is just the beginning, that the story hasn’t been written yet,” Vogl said.

Smead added that if there’s one thing she wishes to leave her students with, it’s that they are capable of accomplishing anything they set their mind to—“whether that be go to college, or become an underwater welder—which one of my students wants to be—as long as they work hard and believe in themselves, the world is theirs.”