Nicole Baker Fulgham works on the faith community relations team at Teach for America, inspiring people in faith-based organizations to work to eliminate educational inequity. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she is also an avid figure skater.
Comment: What are the biggest challenges facing recent graduates who hope to do the kind of work you do?
Nicole Baker Fulgham: Teach For America seeks to enlist our nation’s leaders in the movement to eliminate educational inequity in the United States. One of the biggest challenges for individuals who want to join Teach for America and teach in the classroom is that many students in low-income communities are very far behind academically. On average, by the time students in low-income communities are in the fourth grade, they are already three grade levels behind students in wealthier communities. This is the difference between a fourth grader who can read Harry Potter books and a fourth grader who is struggling to read books like “See Spot Run.” These students, of course, have amazing potential—but our teachers have to work incredibly hard to catch kids up to where they should be. It would be very easy to make excuses for why some children, particularly those growing up in poverty, cannot achieve. Teach For America teachers have to wrestle with that tension and maintain high expectations for every single child.
Comment: How does the Christian faith address those challenges?
NBF: The Bible teaches us that God has created each of us in His own image. I interpret that to mean that every single person, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or family background has the potential to do something amazing. As a result, my Christian faith simply will not allow me to stand for a world where 50% of the 13 million children growing up in poverty never graduate from high school. I believe these statistics are unconscionable and that God commands us, as people of faith, to work towards justice for everyone—particularly for those who have the least in our society. Micah 6:8 is the perfect roadmap for these challenges: “. . . And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy . . .”
Comment: What can students do while still in school to prepare for those challenges?
NBF: I recommend that students take courses on poverty, social justice, race and class. These macro issues are intertwined with the challenges in our public schools, and more knowledge of these issues will help ground future Teach For America teachers in the larger context of our nation’s schools. I also recommend taking on significant leadership roles through part-time employment, athletics or extra-curricular activities. In many ways being a teacher is similar to a key leadership role—you need to set big goals, invest students and families in those goals and measure your progress along the way in order to change your approach when necessary. Leadership positions are wonderful preparation for tackling the challenges that many Teach For America corps members face on a daily basis.
Comment: Is there a writer, magazine or newspaper columnist, or blogger who addresses your sphere of life with wisdom?
NBF: I enjoy reading Jim Wallis, from Sojourners, whenever I can. He speaks about politics, poverty, and public policy from a uniquely Christian and non-partisan perspective. I believe he cuts through all the noise and gets to the heart of some of our world’s most pressing social issues, yet he does all this by grounding his writing in Biblical teachings and Christ’s words. His writing inspires and motivates me in my work with Teach For America.
Comment: Are there disciplines and practices that you recommend students cultivate for life in general?
NBF: One of the best things I’ve learned to do is to have personal devotional time on a daily basis. This absolutely sustained me when I was teaching in the classroom—and it still sustains me in every area of my life. My other recommendation is to learn the practice of setting tangible, measurable goals and objectives. This is something that helped me be an effective teacher, but it still drives me in every professional and personal endeavor.I believe we all become much more efficient and effective when we’re driving toward something tangible; we’ll know when we’ve accomplished the goal and when we’re not yet on track to meet it. Setting goals has enabled me to make sure I’m moving toward an actual result vs. just “staying busy” and going through the motions.