Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton

Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton by Sarah Sentilles (Beacon Press, 224 pages, $23.95) BUY NOW!

reviewed by Eva A. Frank

Sarah Sentilles recalls the first Teach for America poster she ever saw, an African American man standing in front of a chalk board facing excited students of color. No explanation. No phone number. Sentilles wanted in. Based on the poster, Sentilles assumed that good teaching was simply the conveying of information. In hindsight, she realizes TFA depends on young, idealistic people who believe that this is true. Otherwise, she wonders, who would ever sign up for a two-year teaching stint in Compton?

Taught by America is an honest reflection by a young professional who is still grappling with the chaos, love, violence, resiliency, care, and confusion that marked her two years in two different elementary schools in Compton, California. “Deep down, though, I knew TFA was something I wanted to be able to say I had done, not something I actually wanted to do.” Sentilles admits in the introduction to the book as she grapples with the early lesson that teaching in Compton was not the hard part, the hard part was learning in Compton. Her own learning. While her love for her students unfolds in the telling of their lives in and outside the classroom, ultimately Sentilles, a wonderful teacher by anyone’s measures, is undone by a common ailment among new teachers – the idea that you alone must fix it all, when in reality, often, you can barely handle your own classroom. As a new teacher with only six weeks of training, running on instinct, adrenaline, and meager supplies, Sentilles captures every new teacher’s exhaustion. “Felix reminded me that my students deserved the best – but instead they got me.”

Eva A. Frank is the director of CES National’s EssentialVisions DVD project.