Although she doesn’t share their background exactly, Lei Covington understands perfectly the power of that conversion experience that has turned many a Teach for America adherent away from the world of commerce and toward the calling of education.
After all, she was just a semester away from finishing law school, from a career in the courtroom or a boardroom, when she had a chance encounter with the classroom.
“My professor had a street law program he was starting at a charter school, so I ended up helping him with the classroom and saw so many of the injustices that were happening consistently,” Covington said. “So many of the not-good choices students had made were rooted in power and privilege and their lack thereof. I was thinking, How do we catch students at that point in time? I decided I wanted to catch them before I prosecuted them.”
By “catch” she means to intervene, to alter, to assist. Her professional history – a dizzyingly varied career in education that has brought her to Lenoir County as director of the summer school that Teach for America operates in conjunction with Lenoir County Public Schools – is largely a history of helping people reach their potential, whether as a teacher or as a teacher coach or as a staffer with Teach for America, the national organization that provides a pathway into teaching for college graduates with skills but without the background that traditionally leads to licensure.
After that initial teaching experience while a student at the University of Dayton (Ill.) School of Law, where she decided early intervention was the best way to protect vulnerable children from harmful influences, Covington’s route into education has been more traditional than the usual TFA experience.
A native of Richmond County and a graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Math, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Salem College before heading to law school and being bitten by the teaching bug. Returning to her home state, she obtained a master’s of arts degree in teaching from East Carolina University and, in 2010, found a job teaching fourth grade in Princeville, in Edgecombe County.
“I started teaching and just fell in love with education,” Covington said. “I decided this was where I wanted to be.”
At the end of her second school year in Princeville, at the urging of two Teach for America teachers on the faculty there, Covington joined TFA for summer work as a teacher coach at the organization’s Delta training institute in Cleveland, Miss.
It was the first of a series of jobs, part time and full time, with TFA: a teacher coach at the summer training institute in Tulsa, Okla., a staffer with Teach for America as manager of teacher leadership development for two years, director of the TFA summer school in Philadelphia and four years on the Delta institute’s management team.
“This past year, I decided I wanted to come back closer to home because North Carolina had started doing theirs,” she said.
What Teach for America in Eastern North Carolina had started were regional training centers in Lenoir and Northampton counties – summer schools that serve the dual purpose of extending learning for public school students and giving TFA corps members, the soon-to-be teachers, valuable classroom experience under expert supervision.
“There’s something about being in the school director’s role,” Covington said, comparing it to other TFA positions she’s held. “You get a lot more hands-on with kids. You get to see the coaching happening. The thing that I love the most is the professional development happening.
“I have the ability to be able to say I’m going to create the platform for you all to bring your best selves into this space and do the work. That makes me really happy. My job is to come in with a flashlight and shine a light on the greatness that they already are. I get to push them and support them.”
This summer, the third year TFA and LCPS have partnered on summer school, Covington is supervising a staff of nine, 37 TFA corps members and 300 elementary-age students at Contentnea-Savannah K-8 School. After five weeks of summer school and a couple of additional weeks of training, the newly minted teachers will fan out into 13 school districts in eastern North Carolina to begin their two-year commitment.
TFA helps place them in an environment where they are most likely to succeed, Covington says, but first the training gets them accustomed to a landscape that may be strange and a rural lifestyle that may be stranger.
“There’s a real life component to it,” she said. “We have teachers coming in from California, from New York, so it’s a lot different.”
A regional training center like the Lenoir County site – compared to the national institutes in Mississippi or Philadelphia that might host corps members from a half-dozen different states – offers the advantage of context. Not only are trainees being specifically schooled in one set of state-mandated curriculum standards, they are getting a feel for where they will live and work.
“We have teachers that are going to be in the exact county they are in right now,” she said. “Once we get farther into the summer, they’re going to have to start thinking about housing, where am I staying, what does that house look like. That’s a lot easier to deal with on a weekend here than it is if you’re in the Mississippi Delta 13 hours away.”
Typically, LCPS has about 25 TFA corps members among its nearly 550 classroom teachers and may hire a half-dozen or so of this summer’s group. As lateral-entry teachers, those still acquiring the requisite credits for state certification, they receive targeted assistance through the district’s Beginning Teacher Program, which pairs all new teachers with mentors and requires their participation in a year-long develop program.
All new teachers need help with the specifics, Covington says. What TFA training instills, she thinks, is an attitude of openness, not all the answers.
“We are not a pipeline of teachers,” she said. “We are helping support educational leaders. For this summer that means that our teachers will not leave with all the answers, but they will leave being reflective educators, having those skills and that mindset. Give me the information and let me work through it. Let me come in here and be a team player. We’re also working with teachers who see themselves as coming in and being part of a community. That makes a huge difference.”
Having lived in North Carolina most of her life, living now in Harnett County and planning to return in the fall to her work as an instructional coach at a school in Fayetteville, Covington knows the friendliness this summer’s batch of TFA teachers will encounter wherever they end up in eastern North Carolina. She’s already encountered it in Kinston at her summer school.
“I walked in and got exactly what I was expected from the custodial staff, from the front office, from the parents,” she said. “It was a warm welcome. It’s community.”