Great teachers make all the difference. But what makes a great teacher?
For 20 years, Teach for America has been trying to send the best talent to students most in need.
Here in Chicago, 400 smart people just finished a boot camp of sorts, with one goal in mind: closing the achievement gap.
It's the gaping hole where black, Hispanic, rural and low-income students fall, way below their Caucasian and more affluent counterparts in academic performance.
Future teachers like Jennifer Miller from Elmwood Park, are members of a force determined to defeat it.
“I'm a special education major,” Miller said. “I'm already in the education field, and I've always been passionate about teaching.”
Unlike Miller, most Teach for America corps members did not plan a teaching career, but they are all top professionals or top graduates, like Jason Kingman.
“I went to school at the University of Kansas at Lawrence,” Kingman said. and my major was anthropology.”
"We do a really rigorous selection process to find our corps members who are really invested in our kids,” Vice President of Teach for America Susan Asiyanbi said. “We had about 48 thousand applicants who applied, we took a little over 5,000."
Instead of the traditional route to the classroom, the TFA corps crams it into five weeks.
The workload over the five weeks is intense. After spending all evening in the dormitory working together, going over lesson plans, reviewing what they've learned, they get ready for their student teaching in the morning and spend all afternoon in seminars.
The seminar FOX Chicago observed was about collaborative teaching. It will be crucial that these teachers work well with other teachers in the schools they'll be sent to - teachers who may resent TFA's elite reputation.
"We have many studies over time that have been showing the impact of the significant gains our teachers have been making for our students,” Asiyanbi said. “We have a study from Tennessee that actually shows that our teachers on average, compared to average teachers, are actually performing significantly higher.”
Building a better teacher can't be done in just the five week institute.
These future educators commit to two years in the corps - and TFA Is there every step of the way. It has 20 years experience with beginner teachers in the most challenging schools
“They've provided me with so many resources,” Miller said. “Which continues to build my confidence"
Miller, Kingman and the thousands of others who made the cut this year have to be interviewed and hired just like other teachers. They are paid the same wages, and join the same unions.
But TFA corps members tend to be in great demand - especially since they can only apply to schools in great need.
"I'm going to the twin cities, Minneapolis,” Kingman said. “I'm teaching middle school special education."
They have to believe that their actions can change the outcome for students there.
“We really instill our corps members with the mindset that belief and action is actually what matters,” Asiyanbi said.
Kingman said it is also important to teach these kids that they can become the best learners they can be, no matter their ability when they enter the classroom.