Jenne Battaglia is from Youngstown, Ohio. Zack Tannis is from Amityville, N.Y. They both ended up in Kinston this summer and are glad they did.
They’re happier they’re staying.
After an intense eight weeks of training with Teach for America – six of which were spent teaching LCPS elementary students in summer school – these corps members, as they are known in TFA parlance, are about to embark on their teaching career at Northeast Elementary School – and settle into their life in a new place.
Classes begin Monday and Battaglia and Tannis plan to be in Lenoir County for at least two years. Although they are both many miles from home, they already feel at home here.
“Everyone seems to be open and welcoming toward everyone else,” said Tannis, a May graduate of St. Johns University. “I feel like everyone cares about my well-being.”
For Battaglia, who graduated last December from Youngstown State University, “being a part of a community” ranked as a highlight of her summer. “I felt a very strong sense of community with the relationships that I built and the people who are here,” she said. “I feel very welcome here and very at home. When I go to restaurants or when I’m at the gas station, it’s just very open, very welcoming.”
Kinston went to some lengths to make sure the 46 corps members and TFA personnel here for the summer felt welcome. Young Professionals of Lenoir County hosted two events to help them connect with residents, summer excursions included a Wood Ducks game, and living in TFA-provided housing downtown added to the immersive quality of the young teachers’ experience.
Immersion has been a primary objective of Teach for America for the past two years, as the organization has partnered with LCPS to provide a regional training program for teachers assigned to work in eastern North Carolina. The national training model that TFA once used exclusively and still uses outside of North Carolina can make it more difficult for corps members “to grow your roots” during training, Battaglia thinks.
“It’s very important that you start to reach out and get to know people,” she said. “I think that having residency here is a very wise choice.”
Neither she nor Tannis was particularly familiar with eastern North Carolina, but neither ever felt like strangers here.
“It’s not like this is a culture shock,” Battaglia said.
“This is my first time being here,” Tannis said. “I decided to come to North Carolina because it seemed a lot like a place I used to live. I grew up on the Eastern Shore, so I saw the similarities.
“North Carolina in general seems like a state that’s waking up socially. It just seemed like a place I wanted to be, to witness everything changing and be a part of it.”
Teachers bring a strong sense of service to the profession; to that awareness teachers like Battaglia and Tannis bring an elevated understanding of social justice that both draws them to Teach for America and is inculcated by TFA during training.
“Teach for America offers that lens of understanding the racial inequity that is within America and within all these different systems, and they provide you with the training to be culturally responsive and to have that lens,” Battaglia said.
She took her degree in early childhood education after changing her major from nursing. “I just decided to follow my passion,” she said. “It was never my intention to get my teaching degree and get a teaching job in my hometown.”
Having friends who joined Teach for America piqued her interest enough to investigate. “I did more research and, seeing what the organization stood for and what the organization was all about I knew that once I graduated that was something I would want to do afterwards.”
She will teach second grade at Northeast. “My licensure is pre-k to third so all of my student teaching and background is in those grades,” she said. “Back home, we have the Third Grade Guarantee Test in Ohio, so a lot of what we do in first and second grade is getting kids ready for that test. They have these high-stakes tests now, so it’s important the kids have that background and knowledge.”
A history major at St. Johns, Tannis was turned toward teaching by a personal experience. “Two years ago in one week, four or five of my friends got arrested,” he said. “I just thought back to when we were in school and how certain teachers were able to reach me in a way they couldn’t reach other students, so I knew I wanted to be a teacher to at least try to reach everyone the same.”
He chose elementary school – it’ll be fourth grade at Northeast – because “it was a necessary presence,” he said. “I feel like that is where the need is, in elementary. There’s already a lack of male teachers in school generally, but there’s really a dearth in elementary school.”
Like Battalgia, he interviewed at other elementary schools but was attracted to Northeast by the connections the school forged with the community, through events and volunteers, under Felicia Solomon, principal there last school year.
“I knew this was somewhere I just wanted to be,” he said.
Placing corps members in the town where they trained is “optimal for them,” said Caty Gray Urquhart, director of residency elementary programming with Teach for America in North Carolina. “They’ve fallen in love with Kinston and want to stay and are excited about having the opportunity to stay.”