University of Tennessee, Knoxville
B.B.A in marketing, also studied pre-dental
This daughter of a dentist mom and retired father makes no bones about it: "Growing up in Franklin, Tennessee, in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, I led a very sheltered life." It was a life worlds apart from the blue-collar area around Kingsbury High School, where today Athena Palmer teaches ecology, anatomy, and physiology. Describing herself the first week, she says: "There I was, a 22-year-old blond girl, not much older than my students, trying to control them all."
She dealt with kids so unaccustomed to hearing a simple "good morning!" that they either ignored her or responded with a startled glance. She saw many students arrive late for school, and was told the way to handle that "was pretty much up to me." She heard the words "bitch," "retarded," and "f*ck" so often she knew she had a battle on her hands.
Today, seven months later, her first-period class sits working quietly, though two or three teenagers straggle in after the bell. Palmer instructs them in earth's sustainability, solar energy, and nutrient recycling. For homework, she assigns a list of questions. "I want answers in complete sentences ," she declares, to a good-natured chorus of groans. To further improve literacy skills, she holds a "power hour" each Wednesday, when students read a science-based article and work on comprehension. Those first few weeks were an adjustment, recalls Palmer: "Going to bed at 1 a.m., getting up at 5. Now I have a routine down. I get here about 6, and I don't go home till I'm absolutely prepared for this day and the next. Then I leave at 7 and have my evening to myself." She has altered some students' bad habits. Most respond pleasantly to her "good morning!" and others have quit using foul language — at least around her.
Palmer learned about Teach for America at the same time she was applying to dental school. The more she learned about the learning gap, the madder she got about "leaving kids behind." She says, "Teach for America corps members know they're responsible for students' performance. We believe you instill confidence in a student, set a standard, and at some point the student will rise to the occasion." And her goal goes beyond percentages. "I ask myself, what will it take for me to change the path that my kids are currently on?"
One student stands out in her mind: "Every teacher who knew I had this child said, 'Oh, God help you, honey," smiles Palmer. "But he had a 100 on his last test. He came to me and said, "Everybody thought I was dumb, but I'm smart.' The day he did that I thought I'd cry all over the place."
Early in the year, Palmer said she felt awkward around longtime teach-ers. "It was like the TFA corps members were educational saviors, here to save the day," she says. "I could understand how they felt. But recently a couple of co-workers said to me, 'You really are doing something.'"
Though she plans to enter dental school when her two-year stint at Kingsbury is up, she says her experience here "will never be forgotten. I knew I could make a difference, but I didn't realize that I could have such good rapport with the students, attend their games, know their parents. Teach for America's goals will always be important to me."