Matt Dixon ’11 – Giving the Gift of Education

Matt Dixon with his 8th Graders in DCHow did you get interested in Teach for America? Can you provide a little background on TFA?
Teach For America is a national corps of recent college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural schools in an effort to close the achievement gap and reach public educational equity. The program also works to develop corps members into life-long advocates of the educational equity movement who can affect change at various levels – from classrooms to courtrooms. This year, more than 9,300 corps members are teaching 600,000 students in 43 low-income communities across the country as nearly 24,000 Teach For America alumni are working from inside and outside the field of education to create the changes needed to close the achievement gap.

I first heard of Teach For America after being contacted by the campus recruiter at Illinois. After meeting with her, I conducted some of my own research on the organization and the movement and found that not only did TFA work to close the achievement gap but it made a concerted effort to develop the careers of its corps members after their two year commitments. For my undergraduate career, I had planned on attending law school post-grad and had started to apply to schools at the time of my meeting with the recruiter. As part of my informal research, I spoke with some practicing attorneys, as well as some older Gamma Zetas who were in law school at that time, and heard the same sentiment repeated – “pursue TFA, you can always go back.” This opinion coupled with my desire to be partake in a unique experience led me to apply for and eventually join the organization.

Where did you end up teaching and at what level and what courses did you teach?
I have been teaching at St. Anthony’s School in Milwaukee’s south-side. While the school is parochial it is funded by vouchers and 99% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. During my first year, I taught math, literature, writing, Latin, and science to 6th through 8th grade students. This year, I have been the 7th grade history and science teacher; in this role, I see 120 7th grade students for both classes throughout the day.

What was your major at Illinois and did it prepare you for what you experienced in TFA?
While at Illinois, I earned a degree in communication. Knowing that I wanted to eventually pursue a law degree, I had originally considered studying economics, political science, and media studies – however, after some research I found that communication allowed me to take courses in all three fields. Given my intention to earn a law degree, I think that the breadth of topics and information encompassed within the communication major provided me with a broad base of skills and knowledge that I have found valuable.

My communication degree has undoubtedly aided me throughout my experience as a Teach For America corps member. Many courses demanded keen analysis of words and messaging and helped me develop an understanding and appreciation for the power of words and how they are expressed. Courses in argumentation forced me to consider the many ways in which my messages could be perceived and have led me to be a stronger communicator. As a TFA corps member, I have had to communicate with a variety of stakeholders – students, parents, siblings, coworkers, administrators, professors, media members, and even members of Congress – and the appreciation and tact that I developed in my messaging as a communication major have helped in each situation. Given the nature of the work, many conversations include sensitive topics such as racial, political, and socioeconomic differences and it is vital that I am constantly aware of how my words and actions can be perceived and I think that my studies while an undergrad have truly helped.

What kind of training and support do TFA provide?
Teach For America provides a five-week “boot camp” during the summer before a corps member enters the classroom. This program, called “Institute”, involves direct instruction in teaching methods, guided support and coaching from a mentor, and daily experience in an actual classroom. While I do think there is an ethical question to be raised here, I was actually teaching summer school in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood after receiving one week of instruction in teaching methods. This ‘hit-the-ground-running’ approach forces corps members to learn and adapt quickly – a steep task, but one that does make a corps member quickly understand the responsibilities of their new role. Following the summer ‘Institute’, a CM reports to their region/city where they will soon begin their two-year teaching commitment. Each CM is assigned an advisor who observes and coaches them throughout their two year commitment. Professional development meetings and conferences are also hosted by TFA and Americorps once a month on Saturday mornings. Besides the meetings and the support provided by their mentor, TFA CMs also have the benefit of the entire TFA network and alumni base.

What was the most difficult challenge you faced while teaching? How did you overcome it?
My most difficult challenge has been creating and maintaining realistic expectations of students, families, and the system. Growing up in an affluent western suburb of Chicago, I can undoubtedly say that I was afforded privilege when it came to my education and upbringing – circumstances that my students cannot relate to. Thus, when I think of middle school and the expectations I was held to, and the content that I learned, I have to bear in mind that my experience was very different than the reality my students face. The challenge has come in establishing what standard to hold the students to – can I get upset with a student if they don’t know what decade the Great Depression was in? Can I expect a student to demonstrate sustained self-control and attention if they have not been asked to at home? If students have not been exposed to certain background knowledge before they reach me, or they have largely been unsupervised for most of their life, what expectation is considered fair? Every day I deal with this challenge and can often find entire lessons derailed by the lack of background knowledge that my students possess; but, through a change of mind, I have realized that I should not be upset by a lack of knowledge – I just have to reassess what I need to teach and then move forward accordingly.

What surprised you the most about the experience?
While the American education system is largely in disarray, inner-city education is often the focal point of debate regarding the system’s problems. It is unfortunately the case that many people think the issues with urban education lie in a lack of care by students, parents, and teachers in these environments. Entering Teach For America, I largely shared that belief. However, I have discovered that a lot of the problems are systemic and that the decision-makers are either suggesting solutions that are disconnected from the reality of the education landscape or are bound to cause more problems and headaches for those involved. My biggest surprise has been that there are so many roadblocks to information, access, and power for low-income families – while there certainly issues of apathy, the amount of barriers to be overcome in urban education have definitely made me reevaluate who is responsible for the problems that exist there. Following this vein, I am amazed by the amount of services that schools are expected to provide. While funding is not the panacea, it certainly is a factor in educational quality, and a large proportion of school funding is spent on services that are not necessarily related to education in the classroom. Schools are expected to provide transportation, food, and many other services to students and their families that take away from the funding that could be used to improve schools and the system.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the experience?
The most valuable lesson that I have learned from my experience regards leadership and motivation. In my past experiences, the individuals involved were often ‘bought in’ or all working towards a similar goal – however, this same aura does not necessarily exist in a middle school classroom. Often when things do not get done as expected or behavior is less than ideal, I have found that a change in the motivation that I provide can make a drastic change. A reading on the Great Migration may at first seem boring, but when connected to the migration of Mexican Americans and their experience today, the reading takes on a whole new meaning that now interests students. A review exercise may yield little enthusiasm, but when turned into a competition, everyone becomes excited to demonstrate their knowledge of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. The experience has provided a valuable lesson in leadership and motivational strategies that I believe will translate well to other work.

What is one of your favorite stories from your experience?
I think my favorite aspect of the experience has been building relationships with the students. It is amazing how much they have to offer and how much can be learned from them. There are moments throughout every day where I find myself laughing at what is occurring before my eyes – at times the laughter is a way of dealing with the frustrations, but more often than not, it is genuine and sparked by the creativity of a student and their words.

Has the experience made you want to teach more or have you had your fill?
For the moment, I have had my fill of teaching. However, my experience over the last two years has provided me an experience that I have and will continue to value. My perspective and lens have developed and grown over the last two years largely on account of the TFA experience and I can assuredly say that I am better off for it. The experience has also opened me to the field of education as a future career path – while I do not imagine myself returning to a classroom, I would be open to considering other roles in the sector – whether serving on a school board, or in a school leadership position.

Would you recommend TFA to others? What advice would you have for people interested in the program?
I would recommend the TFA program to an undergraduate student – especially those who are not yet set on a career path. The program brings together individuals from across the country that have proven records of leadership and success and allows for an extensive and strong network to be immediately established. You are also given plenty of responsibilities and roles from day one – something that can be a burden, but also demands quick and significant growth and development. I also believe that the program carries a certain amount of cachet with recruiters and admissions offices for those who want to leave the classroom after their two year experience.

When it comes to applying for the program, my biggest piece of advice is to significantly research the different regions, graduate school programs, and teaching assignments that are available. Each region can be drastically different in pay scales and certification programs – for example, in Milwaukee over the last two years, I have had to take night classes after work to earn my Master’s in Education while my friend in Denver has no master’s or certification requirement and spent over 30 days on the mountains this past winter (the master’s program is significantly discounted though!) Another piece of advice that I think many would benefit from hearing before starting the program is that you will likely fail in some way during your two year experience. Most people who enter the program have had little experience with short comings or failure before and are wholeheartedly shocked when they encounter barriers, problems, and issues that they cannot easily overcome.

I understand that you just finished taking a group of your 8th grade students to Washington, DC. Tell us a little about that trip. How did it come to be? How many kids? How many chaperons? How did you raise the money and how much? How long were you gone?
At the end of last year, myself and two other Teach For America corps members, who also teach at St. Anthony, met to come up a ‘legacy’ that we could leave at the school. After some conversation, we decided that starting an annual 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. would be an event that would promote school culture and student investment. Following some research and general planning, we pitched the trip to our school administration at the end of last year. Given that we could raise all of the money needed and that we could have more specific plans come the beginning of this school year, we were given the go-ahead. At the start of this year, the other teachers and I set out to raise $13,000 in order to take twenty students on the trip for a week’s time. We utilized crowd/social funding, planned different school and community events, and arranged various fundraisers for the students. Utilizing our different avenues of funding we were able to raise the necessary funds and took the students on the trip last week.

There ended up being four teachers and twenty students on the trip and we made a point of seeing as much of the nation’s capital as possible. For many students, this was their first time out of Milwaukee or Wisconsin and we wanted to make the most of every minute. While in D.C., we toured the Capitol, sat in on the House, visited the monuments along the National Mall, wandered through four Smithsonians, spent a day in Old Town Alexandria, toured Georgetown and the University of Maryland, reflected at Arlington National, visited the Holocaust and Spy museums, and attended mass at the National Cathedral. The week was enjoyed by all and we are already working to ensure that the trip occurs annually. In fact, we have already raised $4,000 for next year and hope to see that number continually rise so that we can bring more students on the trip.

What do you think will be your favorite memory from the trip?
Given how packed the week was events, it is hard to pick out just one memory to be titled as ‘favorite.’ However, there are four that I think are worth mentioning. During the week, we took the students on tours of Georgetown and the University of Maryland. While at Georgetown, the other teachers and I spoke to students about the various living options on a university campus, and I found it an interesting task to explain to 8th grade students what living in the ATO house was like. However, the memorable moment of the tours arrived when leaving the University of Maryland; as we were boarding the bus to head back into the city, a group of students asked if we could stay on campus to walk around more. For most of these students, this was their first time on a college campus and it was great to see how interested they were in college life.

A second highlight of the trip was our visit to the U.S. National Holocaust Museum. Students’ attention was fully captured and they were absorbed in the museum and its exhibits. Talking with the students afterwards, it was inspiring to see how many of them were moved by the experience and to hear of their renewed commitment to promoting social justice.

Personally, two moments particularly stand out to me. First was my visit to the Supreme Court. I loved being able to actual enter and sit in the court while listening to a docent lecture on the background of our country’s highest judicial system. I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with Milwaukee’s representative, Gwen Moore. While picking up tickets to view the House of Representatives gallery, I spoke with a staff member of Rep. Moore’s office about the trip and our school. The staffer thought that the congresswoman would love to hear the story and brought me into her office to meet with her. We spoke for about ten minutes about education in Milwaukee and arranged for her to visit St. Anthony’s – something I hope we can arrange before the school year lets out.

Did you have any “scares” on the trip… i.e. one of the kid’s wondering off etc.?
Thankfully we did not experience any major scares on the trip. We made a point of providing the students reasoning for every visit, experience, or rule enforced – a step that I believe made our lives easier as students understood that rules weren’t arbitrarily in place…it may have also helped that the twenty students chosen did have to meet certain academic and behavioral benchmarks in order to be eligible for the trip. Regardless of the reason, I am glad to say that the trip passed without any scares or even minor catastrophes.

Do you have anything else to add about your trip or your TFA experience?
The TFA program provides a life experience that you will not forget. Reading about the achievement gap in Time or the WSJ is one thing, but immersing yourself in the movement to end it is a whole different experience – one that can transform your path and that of the students you work with. I think the experience, or one like it, is something that many recent graduates could benefit from. You have to grow and mature at an incredible rate and you can always go back to law or business school after your two years – except now you will have an experience and a story that will make you a better candidate for whatever role you may seek. Unless you are unwaveringly sure of what you would like to do after undergrad, I think someone should consider spending a year or two in a program or environment that will provide a unique and memorable experience – you can always return to the rat race when you are 24.

What’s going on with you now besides this trip… family, work, hobbies, community service? What’s next for you?
The past two weeks have been busy – besides finally going on the trip to Washington, I was inducted as an alumnus of Teach For America, the soccer season came to a close (I coach), and I graduated from Marquette with my Master’s in Education. With those various responsibilities now done, it has been nice simply teaching the past few days and I look forward to finishing out the school year with a little less on my plate. Once the year ends, I plan on taking full advantage of what will likely be my last free summer until retirement (whenever that comes) by traveling to Europe and spending time at the beach and various festivals in Milwaukee. Come August, I will be starting law school at the University of Michigan – I’m still on two other wait lists, but as of now, I will be calling Ann Arbor home for the next three years – hopefully that doesn’t bring too much backlash and chagrin my way from the Illinois/Gamma Zeta community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *