Catherine Colyer and Jason Young might not agree with author Robert Fulghum's essay "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." But the two have found returning to grade school to be an eye-opening and educational experience.
Colyer and Young, who both graduated from Lawrence High School in 1987, are involved in the Teach for America program, in which participants teach in urban and rural public schools experiencing chronic teacher shortages. Participants aren't certified teachers, but they undergo six weeks of teacher training in Los Angeles before being placed.
Colyer, who in May earned bachelor's degrees in English and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is teaching second-graders in the rural Louisiana school district of Jefferson Davis Parish.
YOUNG, WHO in May earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at Yale, is teaching science to third-graders in the Houston school district.
"I've probably learned more in the last six months than I learned in a year or two of college," said Colyer, who began teaching in August. "This is a look at the real world that I probably would not have had otherwise."
Young called the program a "domestic alternative to the Peace Corps."
"That's the best way to describe it a teaching corps, a two-year commitment, and it's inside the United States," Young said.
Colyer said teaching in the rural parish (Louisiana's equivalent of a county) doesn't bring the same challenges as teaching in the Watts district of Los Angeles, which is where she taught during training. However, she said, "Rural poverty is a beast of its own."
FOR ONE thing, she said, "There's absolutely no money in the parish. I've had to buy everything for my classroom except paper," including maps, staplers and tape.
Also, Colyer said, many of her students' parents have limited educational backgrounds.
"The students really get no help at home, and parents often know less than the second-graders," she said. "You're working with educational expectations that are nil."
Young said that although the Houston school district traditionally has suffered a teacher shortage, the district was more adequately staffed this year. For that reason, he and about 30 other Teach for America participants placed in Houston did not become full-time classroom teachers when school started in the fall.
YOUNG, 22, said he worked as a student teacher in one school before becoming a full-time classroom teacher at West University Elementary School about a month ago.
Most of Young's students come from middle-class families. Nevertheless, Young said, "Teaching anywhere is challenging, especially your first year. As a teacher, you're on stage the whole day. You have to be able to think on your feet.
"I'm glad I had extra time to do more student teaching, and I'm glad I'm in a place where there is a lot of support from the parents."
Colyer said although some of her students' parents had limited success in school, the parents still respect the teachers.
"THE TEACHER still has a lot of power, but it's negative power in my eyes. The school atmosphere is very authoritarian," Colyer said, adding that corporal punishment is still allowed in the school district.
Young has friends in the Teach for America program who were placed in inner-city Houston, where classroom discipline is a problem. He said one of his friends was threatened by a student armed with a knife.
Young said that although his Teach for America training focused heavily on content and methodology, "In coming years, I think there's going to be a lot more emphasis on classroom management."
Colyer noticed some other differences between Teach for America training and classroom reality.
FOR INSTANCE, she was told in Teach for America to avoid "tracking," or grouping students in her classroom according to their ability levels. However, Jefferson Davis Parish has a districtwide system of tracking that begins in the first grade.
Colyer, 22, said that if an uncertified, inexperienced teacher like herself hopes to counter district practices, "Silent sabotage is the key word."
"We had learned all these philosophical ideas in our training institute, but practicality knocks on the door the minute you leave Los Angeles," she said.
Young agreed, saying, "You kind of have to put your ideals in your back pocket."
OF THE more than 3,100 people who applied to participate in Teach for America this year, only 730 people were chosen. Colyer and Young received room and board and free training in Los Angeles, but they incurred expenses traveling to and taking up residence in their respective school districts.
Despite the huge commitment required and the day-to-day challenges they face, Colyer and Young said they find the program rewarding.
"My students might not be great test-takers, but I think they're all learning something," Colyer said. "At least I feel the children are learning to be nice to each other. They're learning social skills and communication skills and acceptance."
Colyer said she was especially touched by one student who gave her a handmade card saying, "Miss Colyer, I love you so much. You are so nice to me. I miss you on the weekends."
Young said he hopes to develop interest in science among his students.
"And it does make you feel good when a student says, `I really enjoyed your lesson,''' he said.