By Sarah Catherine Welch
Ms. Welch is a fifth year First Grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2011 with a B.A. in Art History and Elementary Education Licensure. She was a recipient of the Sarah G. Ball Education Award and a 2011 Teach for America Corps Member in Metro Atlanta.
“The time had arrived for me to transition from being a reader of case studies of failing schools to a teacher in one them,” writes Sarah Catherine Welch, W&L 2011.
“Ms. Welch, I am so glad to be back at school today, we didn’t eat all weekend and I am hungry!” Chills covered my body the first time I heard a six-year-old girl utter this statement one Monday morning in the fall during my first year teaching in Atlanta. As I handed her the first of hundreds of granola bars that I have since passed out to my students, I knew that I was where I needed to be in that moment. It seems cliché that a single book read during an introductory academic course can shape the trajectory of one’s future career, but my life is a testament to this truth. My first Spring Term course, Poverty 101, ensured that my days were spent in Leyburn Library rather than in the sunshine of Rockbridge County during “Camp W&L,” as Spring Term was once affectionately called. In the middle of one reading assignment I ripped out a page of the text and, even as a college freshman, knew that the following excerpt presented a personal call to action.
In So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, Charles Payne writes: ” . . . Give them teaching that is determined, energetic, and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can, most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantage of the culture the children bring with them. Pay attention to their social and ethical development. Recognize the reality of race, poverty, and other social barriers, but make children understand that barriers don’t have to limit their lives; Help them see themselves as contributing citizens for both a racial community and a larger one. Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming from, act as if their possibilities are boundless.” (211).
Poverty 101, and this page of Payne’s text, challenged me to apply theories of combating poverty, specifically in the area of urban education, to my future coursework and extracurricular involvement as an undergraduate. During the following Spring Term, a course entitled Poverty and Education sent my small class of four students to schools in Washington, D.C. and rural West Virginia to contrast the differences in urban versus rural poverty. This first hand look at real schools in real cities made it quite clear – I needed to become a teacher in one of these communities. The time had arrived for me to transition from being a reader of case studies of failing schools to a teacher in one them.
The Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee enabled me to serve as a literacy tutor at the Rockbridge County Library, work at a Head Start program in a neighboring community, attend an alternative Spring Break trip to Charleston, West Virginia, and design my dream class entitled Urban Education. In the inaugural year of this course, I spent four weeks assisting a Second Grade teacher in a Title One school in Richmond, Virginia. This authentic preview of life as an urban educator solidified my plan to become a Corps Member with Teach for America.
My involvement with the Shepherd Poverty Program left an indelible mark on me, spurring an immediate call to action upon graduation. With the generous support of the Sarah G. Ball Education Award, given to a student who commits to teaching in an impoverished community, I outfitted my first classroom with all the necessary materials that every child is entitled to see when he or she walks into a First Grade classroom. With my new collection of appropriate level reading books, hundreds of notebooks for writing across the disciplines, and a brightly colored reading carpet, I took the jump into the life of becoming Ms. Welch in the Atlanta Public School system following its nationally publicized cheating scandal.
Five years and a change in schools later, I still read to my students on that bright carpet multiple times a day. On it, I have seen children ask insightful questions, develop critical thinking skills, collaborate with their peers, and celebrate academic successes. I have also seen my little scholars throw chairs, hit each other, and utter profanity that would make my late grandmother blush. My students face food insecurity, battle immigration challenges, and live among broken families. I meet this daily reality with my personal mission of providing expanded opportunities to each child who enters my door. This mission results in planning engaging field trips across Atlanta, leading an Art History Club for middle school students, and partnering with families on a daily basis. My students and I have taken virtual tours of all seven continents thanks to Google Earth, worn W&L t-shirts on College Day in anticipation of one day attending Ms. Welch’s alma mater, and designed intricate collages at the High Museum of Art. I believe these types of experiences are the exposure to which Charles Payne refers, and the exposure that every child in our country deserves.
Recently I was selected to be honored at the Archbishop’s Banquet for Catholic Education after three years at my current school, a parochial school that serves low-income and immigrant families by providing full and partial tuition scholarships. This distinction is humbling and simultaneously reminds me that we have more progress to make toward reaching educational equality here in Atlanta. Yet when I sit on that colorful carpet each day, I am living the call that was quietly placed on my heart in the spring of 2008. That now framed torn page of Payne’s text sits on my desk and receives quick glances throughout the day, serving as a constant reminder to provide boundless opportunities to my incredibly deserving students. The Shepherd Poverty Program provided me with an initial call to action and the means to make an impactful difference in the lives of children and for that gift I will be forever grateful.