TEACH FOR AMERICA CORPS MEMBER, DANIEL BALKE
Daniel Balke, 22, is doing Teach for America (TFA) in Church Rock, New Mexico, teaching fourth and fifth grade at Church Rock Academy Elementary School, which is on a Navaho reservation outside of Gallup, New Mexico. Balke started his official teaching a few weeks ago at the beginning of the school year, after having attended TFA's training where he taught summer school to fourth and fifth graders. He graduated from George Washington University in May, played college tennis and he is now coaching the Gallup High School tennis team. Balke spent his childhood in New Mexico so he is excited to be back in his original home state. "It's good to finally get going. I love my kids and feel so invested already. Seeing the light bulbs go on is awesome."
Balke first heard about TFA through a classroom presentation in his sophomore year. He hadn't really thought about TFA before that. In October of his senior year, Balke decided to sign up. What changed his mind was the recruiter. "I always thought fixing the education system in the U.S. was key. And when [the TFA representative] told me their vision it resonated so much with my own vision. I found out they are operating in New Mexico and I wanted to come back to my home state." What sealed the deal for Daniel was that the organization has political goals for its members. "They want people to go on in policymaking endeavors. As someone who is interested in running for office someday, this seemed like something for me. I left our meeting on cloud nine and thought this is what I need to do." But, as he signed up, Balke was nervous. "The inequity is so huge, and this is a huge assignment, and who am I, this 22-year-old kid right out of college with seven weeks of intensive teacher training? I believe in it, but there are those thoughts of, Christ, what did I get myself into? But I know that I can do it and I'm in the right place."
Corps members go through a five-week training called Institute and Balke's was in Houston. A typical day: He awoke at 5 a.m., left for school at 6:30, spent half the day teaching summer school and the other part of the day attending a class taught by a curriculum specialist, learning to invest parents in a student's education. They did workshops on literacy and ways to teach kids to read. He spent from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at school and then had evening meetings. At summer school all the corps members are divided into "corps members small groups" which consisted of 10 to 12 people plus an adviser. They would meet to come up with lesson plans. The Institute is physically taxing. "You are working 12 hours a day. Houston is hot and you have to do all these lesson plans, while somehow keeping your body going. It was the most physically taxing thing I've done." (This coming from a college tennis player!) "It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Everyone you see is committed to this mission of educational equity. I still keep in touch with my small group. The environment is so challenging you have to lean on one another."
At Church Rock Academy Elementary School, Balke teaches fourth and fifth grade social studies and writing. Ninety nine percent of his kids are Navaho Indian. It's the poorest school in the Gallup-McKinley district, failing every year to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard for No Child Left Behind. "I'm a novice, but from my initial observation the class size needs to be smaller. Some kids are excelling and others I need to spend a long time repeating over and over before they can get simple concepts. Advanced kids are getting bored. We need smaller and more differentiated classrooms. There needs to be more after school and pre-K programs. It's empowering for kids to be good at something and that can come from after school programs. Then they have something to be excited about and that translates into better performance in the classroom. Most don't come from households where it's feasible to have the money to go to college. There was always going to be the money for me to go to college and if I worked hard it would work out. But that isn't always the case for my kids. So much of this is rooted in economics. Raising expectations is a huge thing. They need to see their hard work result in increased opportunities."
"Hopefully I'll do a lot for these kids, but I will probably take more from this experience than they will. I will take this with me for my life." Balke sees himself going back to grad school. He deferred from Georgetown's program in international relations for two years. "I'll go back to D.C. and work on the Hill like I was planning to do before. But things don't always go the way you think. I don't envision myself as an elementary school teacher in the future, but I would never rule anything out. I would like to use the experience in politics and in service. The most exciting thought is that TFA has political goals to have 100 members in the House with a TFA background. If a fourth of our lawmaking body had spent time in low-income schools, which would be huge in shifting our priorities and legislation. Being a part of this movement is incredible."