# Those Who Can, Do Teach

I’m writing fractions on the whiteboard with my back to my students—a risky move, but this is a relatively calm class. “OK, so who can tell me the least common denominator of four and six?”

“12!” Not a voice I recognize. I turn around.

“Rick? You’re not in this class. Where are you supposed to be?”

“Lunch.”

“And you want to stay and add fractions?”

“Yeah, Mr. Kelly!”

“Um… OK. Grab a worksheet then, and take out a pencil…”

This happens quite a bit, and I’m never sure how to respond to it. You say you could be doing nothing, but you’d rather be here working on fractions, which rank up there with “snitches” and “beaucoup pages on this test” on students’ “Most Hated” list? Well, fine—what can I say? Sit down and start converting mixed numbers.

Of course, I know it isn’t fractions—or my frequent, terrible math jokes—that brought Rick into my classroom. He wandered in because he knows that I’m always teaching something, making something up, throwing something out there. I don’t always do it well, and my kids don’t always get it, but they do always respond to energy and creativity.

I teach at a school in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. It’s an underachieving school even by the standards of where Teach for America places its members. We take students who weren’t able to pass out of eighth grade before they became too old to start high school. Some have been thrown out of two or three middle schools, and many served time in juvenile detention for a colorful range of offenses. Others simply lost a year as orphans of the storm, Katrina kids mishandled by overwhelmed officials in Houston, Atlanta, or Arkansas who fell behind and never caught up. They’ve all been shuffled around, victims of the system who did not get the support they needed at some critical point in their development.

All over the country, there are amazing teachers trying to reach these students, some of whom have been producing astonishing success in their classrooms for decades. But there aren’t enough of them, and they can’t reach everyone. This is why my kids—every one of them behind and at risk, every one of them needing an excellent teacher—ended up with me.

At the moment I’m less than one year out of college, still amazed that, with my History and Literature degree, I’m teaching math to students who are usually five or six grade levels behind where they should be. I’m still discovering all the places inside our copier where a sheet of algebra problems can crinkle and jam (six and counting!).

And yet, when they’re in my class, the vast majority of my students spend their time graphing inequalities, struggling to remember the rules of decimal multiplication, and finding the surface area of cylinders. They work because I compose worksheets and make up whiteboard games, because I take them to the gym to play “Algebra Jam,” because I act like a madman to get them excited about my (rather arbitrary) team points system. I shower them with praise and affirmation and, occasionally, with Starbursts and Jolly Ranchers for correct answers.

When I was preparing myself to enter the classroom, I worried that when I got in front of a bunch of kids I would suddenly discover that I didn’t have “it”—I might not have the talent, the calling, the innate ability to handle a classroom full of kids. Looking back, of course, none of that even exists. I already possessed the raw materials—dedication, optimism, and commitment, along with reservoirs of patience and creativity I didn’t even know I had.

The rest was all hard work, forcing myself to get better because I had to, because my kids need and deserve it. And, once I hacked at it for long enough, praising, cajoling, pleading, and teaching my way through indifference and distrust, these amazing young people started to come along for the ride.

My kids want to learn. They don’t always want to learn all day, and they certainly don’t want to be lectured to or, even worse, “preached at.” But even the worst schools in the country are filled with kids who would, if they could, be math juggernauts and masters of English grammar—if they have the right instructor.

The problems I deal with are incredibly challenging, but the answers usually involve reliance on some combination of hard work, determination, and creative thinking, qualities that Harvard seniors have been refining through four years of long days and late nights spent producing papers and leading student organizations. Educational inequity is a deep and serious problem, and in the long term the systems that educate American children are going to need a lot of help. But, right now, these children need us, as many of us as they can get, to do what we can: to dive in and get working.

M. Aidan Kelly ’08, a former chair of Fifteen Minutes magazine, is a 2008 Teach for America—Greater New Orleans corps member.