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Jessica Benson teaches her students at R.H. Bearden Elementary School in Mississippi a lesson in reading.

A Broader Perspective

Grad Jessica Benson Teaches Math and Reading in Mississippi

October 6, 2009

By Debra Cano Ramos

Jessica Benson, one of eight Cal State Fullerton 2009 graduates selected to teach in underserved public schools across the country as part of Teach For America, is teaching reading and math remediation at R.H. Bearden Elementary School, West Tallahatchie School District in Mississippi. She teaches students in first through sixth grades. Earlier this year, the La Habra native earned a bachelor's degree in child and adolescent studies and completed the multiple subject credential program through the Streamlined Teacher Education Program at Cal State Fullerton.

Q: Why did you want to join Teach for America?

I joined Teach For America because I believe that all children in this country, regardless of what zip code you were born in, should have the same access to quality education that will give them the tools to be productive, contributing members of society.

Q: What’s it like teaching at R.H. Bearden Elementary?

R.H. Bearden’s student population is 100 percent African American and 99 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch. Many students live 15 to 20 miles from the school and endure long bus rides to make it to school each morning. I am the first Teach For America corps member to teach at R.H. Bearden and the only corps member at the school this year. I am in a unique position to forge relationships with the administration and staff, and I hope to make significant gains with my students so that more corps members will join me at R.H. Bearden next year.

Q: What are some of the challenges?

One of the greatest challenges working in a public school in Mississippi is that corporal punishment is legal and widely implemented. It was difficult at first asserting my authority with my students without the use of a paddle. Once I established a respectful relationship with my students, however, they quickly learned that there are conflicts that can be resolved with words rather than paddles. I also work with students who have been held back several times and really need individualized instruction to succeed in the classroom. I also volunteer by holding a Homework Club once a week after school to give students a quiet place to work on their homework, which many do not have at home, as well as tutor students in areas that may be challenging for them.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a teacher?

A: Being a teacher is so much more than standing in front of the classroom and lecturing. A teacher is one who leads by example, who allows students the opportunity to discover and become an active participant in their own learning. A teacher is one who inspires her students to succeed and one who opens the doors of possibility for every student. A teacher holds the highest expectations for her students and truly believes that every student can learn.

Q: What do you hope to get out of teaching at R.H. Bearden Elementary?

A: The Mississippi Delta is unlike any other place I have lived or visited. I have already learned a tremendous amount just by being immersed in the education system, the culture and the politics of this region. Living and working in the Delta has broadened my horizons and shown me the great inequality there is in public education and it has inspired me to work to change it. Being from Orange County, the rural poverty and lack of resources that exist here has truly made me appreciative of all of the luxuries that I took for granted growing up in Southern California. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but this experience has shifted my thoughts slightly. I will most certainly stay in the field of education, but may pursue a career in administration or education policy.

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