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Finding Meaning in the Classroom

By Jim Curran

Jim Curran left a budding business career to become a schoolteacher

Three years ago, I was working as an intern for Merrill Lynch in Stillwater, Minn. I never would have imagined myself as an elementary-school teacher. Although my degree is from the Carlson School of Management—a self-designed management major—my American studies coursework has been the catalyst for every post-graduation career move.

Immediately after graduation, I traveled to Phoenix to join the Teach For America program. I had come to the realization that the world of business would not provide me with a meaningful life. During the summer of 2005, Teach For America trained me to become a classroom teacher. When school began in August, my 37 fourth graders (predominately people of color) were a big load for my 29 desks. The lack of resources was overwhelming—we didn’t even have a full set of textbooks.

Yet the intelligence and excitement of my students drove me to work through the adversity. And with the help of my coworkers and fellow Teach For America corps members, my students over the past two years have made significant academic gains.

In the last two years, I have seen firsthand the ways in which structural and institutional powers succeed in subtly repressing the talents, and in turn the life chances, of individuals in low-income communities. In an effort to work against this, I have been an active participant in my community, hoping to learn from people around me and also to increase my students’ achievement. I started a traveling basketball team with my students. I joined a Southern Baptist church whose preacher was the parent of one of my students. Last fall, I coached football at an area high school.

I am truly happy with my choices. I know that working hard and sacrificing time and money for the good of the community is what will give my life meaning—a realization that has everything to do with my experiences in American studies.

In going from an upper-middle class childhood straight to the Carlson School of Management, it wasn’t hard for me to avoid dealing with the ways in which my whiteness provided me direct and indirect advantages. American studies professors Riv-Ellen Prell and Lary May introduced me to the complex nature of inequality and some of the ways in which institutional power flows out of the past into the present and future.

Professor David Noble had the most profound influence on me intellectually. (Although when he first encountered me—a management major—in his junior seminar, I recall that he pointed to the syllabus and gently inquired, “Are you sure this is something you’re interested in?") From him, and later from Rod Ferguson, I learned about unquestioned ideologies and assumptions that facilitate the perpetuation of inequality.

After deep analysis and reflection, I decided to dedicate my life to the eradication of injustice and inequality. My two years as a teacher have been instructive. Seeing how the dominant culture represses the strength and voices of my students and our collective community, I know that I will have to constantly seek new ways to be effective in the struggle.