Teach for America: Katie Campbell
Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
B.A. in political science
Growing up in Denver with a deep appreciation for public education, Katie Campbell wanted to make an impact as soon as she graduated from college. "Often young people are told they need more experience," says the special education teacher at Georgian Hills Elementary. "Teach for America offered an opportunity for me to go into the front lines right away" without a degree in special ed.
Since last August she has taught children in grades four to six, ages 9 to 13. Most of her students have mild to moderate disabilities, including mental retardation or difficulty processing what they hear, see, or read; some lack self-control and display behavioral problems. "They're all in a regular classroom," she says, "but they come to me for help. I work with them for about two hours. That equates to about an hour for reading and an hour for math. Sometimes I wonder if I'm accomplishing all that needs to be done."
Early in the year, she discovered what she was up against. While teaching a unit on American citizenship, she asked a student if he was born in the U.S. He said, "No, I was born in Memphis." His response to Campbell reflected what she sees as one reason for the learning gap: lack of experience and exposure. "These children don't know how they fit into the big picture, into the world community. I try to help with that."
As a resource teacher, she stresses that her class is for learning, not playtime, and that each child can learn. She tells of a 13-year-old who tested in August at pre-first-grade level. "He would come in and he wouldn't even try. A lot of my students are convinced they cannot do anything." Determined to change that attitude, Campbell used a guided reading instruction for special-ed classes she learned through the city schools' literacy academy. Called "failure-free," the sight-based reading program uses repetition "so students recognize the words on their own and have some success in reading them," she explains. The 13-year-old now tests at mid-first-grade level, an increase Campbell sees as significant, considering the limited time they've had to work together. But what really encourages her is the boy's attitude: "Now he's excited by his successes and he aims to please," she says. "I see joy in this learning progress. And I see a glimmer in his eyes that shows he believes in himself."
No doubt Campbell's own attitude shone through when she was interviewed for TFA. "One thing [TFA recruiters] look for," she says, "is something I know is absolutely critical to the students and the teacher: the unwavering expectation that my students can achieve. Not only that they deserve to, but that they're capable of it. That expectation, that sense of possibility, rubs off on the students."
As interested in social justice as she is in education, Campbell sees herself possibly going into school psychology or social work. "Ultimately," she says, "I'm interested in advocacy and policy development."