Kathryn James graduates from Ole Miss on Saturday with not one, not two, but three majors including public policy, Southern studies and economics. With a course load like that, you may think James is headed straight for politics, law school or a high paying job in any of her three fields. While her future may hold such things, as for the present, James will join the Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC) after graduation. For James, it’s all about understanding the problems at the ground floor before she takes the next steps in her career.
“I worked for a nonprofit advocacy group in D.C. We advocated for issues around youth development and achievement gaps,” she said. “While that’s the kind of work I see myself doing long-term, I came away feeling I didn’t have a good enough sense of what these problems look like on the ground. I realize that in order to do policy well and fully understand it’s implementation, I have to know what good teaching looks like, and this program will allow me to learn.”
James enters a two-year commitment with the MTC, during which time she will earn her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction per the program. She’ll attend classes at Ole Miss on Saturdays for eight weeks. While the classes will be intensive, she looks forward to being able to put all of her focus into her classroom during the week.
“We teach summer school and we’re observed every day by veteran teachers. Every day, we debrief about the content of our lessons and also our classroom management, discipline and overall teacher presence,” James said. “That intensive everyday feedback is awesome; it allows us to work out problems, and it creates a really omnipresent support system to help serve the students as best we can.”
Despite being a Louisiana native, James is ready to give back to the state that has given her so much. James knows that to truly address some of the issues facing education across the nation may be exemplified in Mississippi more so than anywhere else, but she looks forward to dealing with these issues throughout her life.
“Mississippi is the place that taught me how much I didn’t know about education and my own privilege. I am greatly indebted to Mississippi as a place that helped me figure out who I am and what kind of role I want to have in the world,” James said. “If you’re going to talk about issues of education, equality and racial injustice in education that exists everywhere in some sense, but it’s partially undeniable in this place… if we’re going to talk about improving them, starting in a place where it’s extreme helps you see problems in very stark relief.”
James noted that some of the biggest challenges facing education are the “privileges, opportunities and oppressions that students face before they even make it into a classroom.”
James aims to keep students on a level playing field rather than playing catch up in the classroom later in their development.
“We need to be more intentional about getting ahead of the problem rather than playing catch up when they’re in the 10th grade,” she said. “Children need to have the same Pre-K skills to give them a chance not to fall behind. All of the research shows it is way more expensive to play catchup than it is to provide high-quality services from the very beginning.”
Issues can’t be fixed by one person, but James hopes that teachers can come together to present a united front against these issues.
“Having a more involved body of teachers is powerful, and I think that a willingness to be involved with education outside of the classroom is very important, whether that means working with a non-profit, advocacy, tutoring or whatever it may be is really powerful,” James said.
This won’t be James’ first time in a classroom, after working with College Corps during her time at Ole Miss. College Corps places students into non-profits and schools in high-need areas. This experience will go with her as she begins her new venture with MTC.
“I’ve learned a lot from my students and the teachers I worked alongside,” she said. “Before I started with College Corps, I thought a lot about the content, but they helped me learn about discipline, classroom management and the ways that different students interact with each other and their teachers.”
While the commitment is two years, James may stick around longer and continue to learn how to become the best teacher she can be, but she plans to eventually return to grad school to earn a Ph.D. in education policy.
“Something that better equips me with the bigger picture and a macrocosm lens, learning the stats and the policy history… The time I will spend teaching is the microcosm where I see the problems we face in my classroom,” James said. “My grad work will be the marriage of those two which will allow me to better advocate for programs that work to close achievement gaps and making sure all students have the support, opportunities and tools to succeed before they fall behind.”
James will begin her time with MTC June 1, leaving little time to rest up and recover from her senior year at Ole Miss. During that time, she’ll be brushing up on her reading as she’ll be teaching 10th-grade English at Holly Springs High School this summer.
Steven Gagliano is a writer for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.