By Priya Narapareddy
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) –- Stephen Haas said he would feel extremely nervous standing in front of a roomful of fourth- graders, knowing that he was responsible for not only teaching them, but also for helping them succeed against the odds.
Haas, a senior at The Catholic University of America in Washington, is aware of the effect poverty has on education and the high incarceration rates of children who grew up in poverty.
At Catholic University’s Oct. 8 session for Teach for America applicants, Haas learned that Arizona corrections’ officers kept records of the number of students who failed in elementary school to determine how many prison beds to build in a decade.
“I couldn’t be nervous if I didn’t care,” he said. “Since I would care so much about them, I would be absolutely thrilled at the chance to do something good for them.”
Haas described education as a basic need for all people. “It’s the most important thing aside from food and shelter,” he said.
The session was led by Catholic University alum Anthony Buatti, who is recruitment director for Teach for America’s Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia Corps.
Buatti encouraged students to apply to teach in cities with a high need for teachers, such as Detroit, Oklahoma City and Memphis, Tenn.
“This whole experience is about going where you’re needed the most,” he said.
Buatti said poverty limits educational opportunity. He said 8 percent of students from low-income communities receive college degrees, compared to 80 percent of students from high-income communities.
Upon graduation from Catholic University of America, Buatti was offered a job with the FBI. He declined the position to join Teach For America’s Phoenix corps.
Buatti said he taught third grade in Phoenix for two years.
“My experience was incredible,” he said. “It was putting my beliefs and what I studied at Catholic into play.”
On Buatti’s first day as a teacher, he realized that he had no idea how to talk to an 8- year- old.
“It terrified me to think, ‘How can I break these concepts down for the kids to understand?’” he said.
Buatti said another challenge included knowing that only 28 percent of third-graders passed the previous year. He said he consulted Teach for America’s online database as well as veteran teachers at his school to learn about the needs of students as well as how to help them understand lessons.
In the 2013-14 school year, 11,000 corps members will reach more than 750,000 students while 32,000 alumni will continue to deepen their impact as educational leaders and advocates.
Buatti said 48 percent of his students passed the third grade after his first year of teaching. Although many more students had passed, he said he was not satisfied with his students’ final test scores.
“I thought, ‘I have to get this right,’” said Buatti. “They deserve better than this.”
Buatti pushed himself and his students harder the second year he taught. He said 96 percent of the class passed.
“We worked relentlessly,” he said.
Haas, who was taught primarily at private Catholic schools, said his high school teacher Bruce Marcoon also focused on helping his students learn rather than building his reputation as a teacher.
“He would relate to us in a way we could all understand at an all-boys prep school,” said Haas. “For him, it was more about what the student got out of it than it was about him being a great teacher.”
Haas said Marcoon was straightforward in the classroom, as well as humorous, and always challenged his students to think.
“He stressed critical thinking, and thinking for ourselves,” said Haas. “I think that every student he has had has learned how to do those things from him.
Bernadette Poerio, Teach for America’s campus campaign coordinator at Catholic University, said she is preparing for her final Teach for America interview.
Poerio, a native of Woodbridge, N.J., is a senior at Catholic University. She said she hopes to become a high school English teacher.
Poerio said she hopes to share her passion for literature with students.
“This makes sense for everything I’ve done in my life,” she said.