Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ten Things to Know About Mississippi

Note: This is primarily about Hollandale, the town where I lived and taught, but it is certainly applicable to most Delta towns in Mississippi.

1) You can get great food at the gas station.

2) The sunsets are beautiful.

3) On your birthday people will pin a dollar to your shirt or sweater.

4) There is a white cafe and a black cafe.

5) Everyone younger will address you as "sir" or "ma'am."

6) Sweet tea is so sweet your gums tingle from the sugar.

7) Music is everywhere.

8) Not only can you get fried green tomatoes, you can get fried pickles.

9) Train tracks divide the town between white and black.

10) Everybody hugs.

Five Mississippi Phrases

1) "Gimme some sugar." Give me a kiss.

2) "White folks section." Where the white people live.

3) "Bust the shot clock." Score more than 100 points.

4) "Tennies." Sneakers.

5) "You better shut up talking to me." No explanation needed.

Monday, January 09, 2006


One of the first things Mississippi Teacher Corps alumni ask when they call is, "Did anyone quit yet?"

There is a morbid curiosity about this. Who couldn't take it? Who cracked under the pressure?

The first-years had class this past Saturday. Everyone was there. Everyone looked good. This is the first MTC group, ever, that has a zero percent attrition rate. Not one person has left: not during the summer training, not during the first few weeks of school, and not after the long December holiday. Those are the weak points, the times when, if someone is going to leave, they leave. So, unless something unusual happens, this class should finish the school year with a zero percent attrition rate. That is quite an achievement, and a testament to their dedication, their character, their competence, and their support of each other.

It may seem odd, congratulating people for doing their job, but teaching in a critical-needs school district is a job like no other (all MTC alumni say "Amen." See, you didn't know this was a participatory blog, did you?). Most critical-needs districts lose between 25% and 50% of their first-year teachers during the school year. Since I've been here the class with the lowest attrition rate has been the fabled Class of 2000 (my class, and remember, o faithful reader, that we designate classes by the year they begin, not by the year they finish). My class "lost" two people during the first month of the initial summer training. That was it. We started with 25 and finished with 23.

The Class of 2004 (the second-years) have done pretty well. They lost two during the initial summer training and then one more after the first year. Not bad.

But the Class of 2005 has the chance to beat everyone. The first class to finish with no losses. I think we'll know this summer. If anyone is going to leave it will be this summer.

Here are the attrition rates of the past seven classes. I note with some pride that the two classes I've recruited, 2004 and 2005 (as well as the class I was a part of, 2000), are among the lowest:

1998: 9% did not finish
1999: 10%
2000: 8%
2001: 58% (what we call at MTC "The Bad Year")
2002: 21%
2003: 33%
2004: 11%
2005: 0%

"Did not finish" encompasses a whole range of options, from quit teaching to failed the Praxis to failed a class.

So why did the attrition rate rise so dramatically in 2001? I don't know.

Why did it drop so dramatically in 2004? I think I know.

This was the first class I had the pleasure of recruiting. The first thing I did was spread the word (as much as I possibly could on a $3,000 budget) about the program nationally. Thus, we actually doubled the number of applications, from 60 in 2003 to 120 in 2004. Furthermore, we greatly expanded our pool of applicants from mostly southerners to people from all over the country. This gave us a much more competitive pool, and thus, a more consistent participant. We more than doubled that number, to 270, for 2005. And the projections for 2006 are somewhere between 300 and 400 (we are at 182 at the moment, with the last deadline not until April). It is my feeling that as the program becomes more and more competitive the teachers become better and better.

Wait a minute, you say. I was in the Class of 2001 and I take offense to that. I'm an great teacher.

Yes, you are correct. We have had excellent teachers in all years. But I think in the last two years we have had more consistent excellence from top to bottom.

Now, there are a host of other reasons as well: better and more realistic training, an emphasis on group camaraderie, stronger classroom management training and support. But, in my opinion (and I could be wrong) the most important aspect is the competitiveness of the program. The more competitive the program the stronger it will be.

Does this mean that we turn away a lot of potentially good teachers? Yes (as one of our alumni told me at Reunion, "I don't think I could get into the program now").

Does it mean we bring in strong participants who have a chance to be excellent teachers? Also yes.

One of the first-years, Anderson Heston, gave the program a great compliment a few weeks ago. He said, "I feel like I'm a part of something that is on the way up, that keeps getting better and better."