2006 application essay: mississippi teacher corps

Why Mississippi?

This is the question I’ve been asked -- and have tried to answer -- for the past year as I’ve told friends, colleagues, and family about my dream to teach the neediest children in one of the poorest states in the U.S. There are, of course, the cliché answers: “to give back;” “to make a difference;” or even “because I can.” And I’ve tried to look beyond these.

No matter how I try to say it, though, it really does come down to wanting to give back something, in a meaningful way, to a world that has given me the opportunity to live, work, and raise a child in one of the best communities in what is arguably the wealthiest country in the world. I’ve worked for the past 18 years for a nonprofit education policy association, and I know the work I do here helps school districts in many ways. But I’m not convinced that policy alone can reach far enough into the deepest pockets of poverty and inequality so many rural and Southern school systems face.

If I want to see and hear and feel the changes that need to be made, I need to do it from within the communities where the need is greatest. But the difference I want to make is more than just a change on a local level. The worst ignorance threatening rural, and especially Southern, schools is the ignorance of people in power who simply throw up their hands in defeat against what they believe is an unsolvable institutionalized problem. And it is, in fact, unsolvable from afar. But from within, and through education, the effects of poverty can be conquered.

This leaves the last reason, “because I can.” While most young graduates who plan to teach also need to think about where they want to live in terms of beginning a family and sending their own children to school -- as a career changer I’m free from those concerns. My family roots are in southwestern Louisiana, and I have strong emotional ties to the South and its rich cultural history. I’m not unaware of the limitations of living and working in an isolated, struggling community, but I’m also ready to put behind me the depersonalized, materialistic life of Washington, D.C. and its sprawling suburbs.

As part of my career, designing and producing publications, I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time in all sorts of schools as I’ve traveled with writers to photograph their stories. From an adult-education initiative in Pointe Coupee, La., to a migrant education program in Indio, Calif., or a “last chance” high school in Southside Boston, I’ve spoken with and documented students and their teachers in dozens of schools where they struggle every day to make a difference in the lives of the children most often forgotten or discounted. With a daughter of my own still in school, though, I didn’t want to leave Fairfax County, Va., and the excellent education she was receiving to live in the communities most in need. Once she was away at college, I set my sites on transitioning into a career in teaching.

In 1979 I was a Bachelor of Fine Arts student at Virginia Commonwealth University with just another semester to go. Then came a job offer related to my major with the requirement that I show up in D.C. in a month. Well, the rest is history. Four years later I was married, and a stay-at-home mother. When my daughter entered school, I went back to work, and have been successful -- but without a degree -- ever since.

George Mason University offers a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree in which, with guidance from a faculty advisor, each student develops an individualized, interdisciplinary program of study with a specific concentration, rather than a major. In May 2006, I will complete my BIS. My concentration title is Place-Based and Experiential Curriculum, and my capstone research project is an examination of the effect of place-based curriculum in fostering sustainable rural communities. My major course work has been in childhood studies; educational psychology; experiential curriculum; cultural differences in intelligence; and education theory. While I’m not an education major, my studies have prepared me to become an informed and effective teacher.

My commitment to teaching goes beyond the two-year MTC program, though, so the additional benefit of its Masters degree has made it an even more attractive option. I’ve looked at other alternative certification programs, but none can assure me a  small-town or rural placement, which is my first priority. I look forward to the challenge of the Mississippi Delta, and to the intrinsic rewards of teaching and living in a community where I can directly affect the future.