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Teach For America Q&A with Bridge Mellichamp
Physics, Algebra I, & Calculus Teacher
Carver School of Health Sciences and Research
1) How did you decide to apply to Teach for America?
I chose to apply to be a Teach For America Corps Member largely as the result of my experiences at the Margaret Maddox East Family YMCA in Nashville, TN, where I worked within the Aquatics Dept. and to some extent with the Teen Center for 5 years. During this time, the degree of different educational opportunities I was afforded at my "academic magnet" school compared with many of my coworkers and patrons of the YMCA. It was nearly incomprehensible that I was attending a private college, let alone one in Maine. I was able to attend my school because of financial aid. The fact that so many others lack knowledge of the opportunities to help them realize their dreams astounded me. This was a large part of why I was initially drawn to Teach For America. The second major component is my passion for subjects such as physics and math that many Americans shy away from or approach with extreme caution. This has always boggled my mind. As an individual, particularly as a woman, I believe I have unique perspective to offer and hope to inspire students to realize the pervasiveness of these subjects not only in everyday life, but in every single career.
2) What do you like most about teaching? ...like least?
What I like the most about teaching is the energy my students give me. This past week was my first week teaching with Teach For America. I am teaching Geometry at Washington High School in Atlanta. Independent of how many- or how few- hours of sleep I got the night before, the instant my 12 students walk in the door at 7h30, I am consumed with energy. Teaching is invigorating, just like swimming off the coast of Maine. I know that from my students, I will learn not only about myself but much more about the world in which we live. I can only strive to share with them as much as they share with me.
The hardest part about teaching is that my day is void of free time during normal business hours, which makes little things like cashing checks tricky.
3) What kinds of things did you like to do within your SPS chapter? Is their a connection between your SPS activities and your decision to join Teach for America?
During my first year of college, our SPS chapter was inactive. I chose to get involved more heavily to increase the comradery amongst the physics students and our faculty. The activities I enjoy the most strengthened relationships while increasing knowledge of opportunities available to and within our community. One program I particularly enjoyed was an information session targeted to sophomores and juniors about REUs and a 3-2 Engineering program with Dartmouth. The summer before, I participated in an REU conducted in Dalian, China, that was hosted by Clarkson University. The experience was without a doubt life changing. I wanted to ensure my fellow physics majors & minors knew the extent of incredible opportunities available to them and how to access these opportunities. I knew very little about REUs when I first applied to 10 different programs. In a similar fashion, my desire to be a Teach For America Corps Member stemmed from my interest in ensuring children in low-income areas are aware of opportunities available to them and are provided with the resources to take advantage of these opportunities. Whether it will be serving as a female role model in science and math or maneuvering financial aid, I strive to help my students identify, locate, and utilize the resources available to them.
4) Who are your favorite teachers, and what did they do to achieve that status?
My favorite teachers taught in a way that they got to me on a personal level. They knew when I had a question and how to get it out of me. They knew how to tap my interests and teach to my learning style. They came to my soccer games, swim meets, fundraisers or whatever else I was participating in at the time. They often taught the subjects I shied away from- history and English- though they managed to ignite interest and even passion by making the subject accessible to me. These teachers brought the world into the classroom through their hard work, dedication, and most of all enthusiasm for the subject matter. One of my favorite math teachers in college was so enthusiastic about the material, that I felt it was impossible to not share at least an ounce of her enthusiasm. They managed to convince me that European History was worth knowing and actually quite interesting. They taught me study skills that I still use today and were available to talk about academic and nonacademic subjects.
5) What would you say is an important consideration or piece of advice that you would give other SPS members who are thinking about applying to Teach for America?
Advice: an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action, conduct.
The best advice I can think of is dispelling some of the uncertainties or myths that I once believed to be true. I assume many others interested in joining the Corps have similar misconceptions. Teach For America has an immensely powerful support program. They will work with you to answer any questions you have or put you in touch with someone who can. Ask when you have questions and share your concerns. After teaching for 2 weeks and being surrounded by about 600 other Teach For America 2007 Corps members, the things that have shocked me the most are: the ease to which even a timid public speaker like myself can talk endlessly with confidence, I know more about physics and math than the kids in my class who haven't yet brought up our 3 year age difference, there aren't nearly enough physics majors in the Corps, teacher salary is more than enough to live on, and the education gap is real. I had read a lot about the education gap and seen it to a degree through my work with Habitat for Humanity and America Reads America Counts. It became incredibly real when I was teaching my 11th and 12th graders the midpoint formula and only half of my class knew that - (-3) = + (+3) and NO ONE had an idea of what that meant. My biggest hesitation in joining Teach For America was my changing my goals: to go on to grad school or entering the work force at the same time as a having a family. There are a few things I realize now that I did not know when I chose to apply last spring.
Currently I am keeping my mind open: who knows, I might stay in teaching. I see now more than ever how critical every sector is in eliminating educational inequality. For this reason, I have a feeling I will pursue my PH.D. in mechanical engineering concentrating on energy efficiency. I aim to enter engineering and tackle the achievement gap by providing opportunities for students in math/science/engineering and working within this sector to increase awareness and efforts to eliminate the gap. I know that if I enter grad school I will not be behind my peers or too old, I will be much more mature and confident and have a different perception on work and research. The application process is long and training is intense, I won't pretend it isn't; it is undoubtedly worth it if making an impact is your passion and you will be prepared to stand in front of children to teach.