Two Years in the Mississippi Delta
by Michael Copperman
Pub Date 12 Mar 2018
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When Michael Copperman left Stanford University for the Mississippi Delta in 2002, he imagined he would lift underprivileged children from the narrow horizons of rural poverty. Well-meaning but naïve, the Asian American from the West Coast soon lost his bearings in a world divided between black and white. He had no idea how to manage a classroom or help children navigate the considerable challenges they faced. In trying to help students, he often found he couldn’t afford to give what they required—sometimes with heartbreaking consequences. His desperate efforts to save child after child were misguided but sincere. He offered children the best invitations to success he could manage. But he still felt like an outsider who was failing the children and himself.
Teach For America has for a decade been the nation’s largest employer of recent college graduates but has come under increasing criticism in recent years even as it has grown exponentially. This memoir considers the distance between the idealism of the organization’s creed that “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and reach their full potential” and what it actually means to teach in America’s poorest and most troubled public schools.
Copperman’s memoir vividly captures his disorientation in the divided world of the Delta, even as the author marvels at the wit and resilience of the children in his classroom. To them, he is at once an authority figure and a stranger minority than even they are—a lone Asian, an outsider among outsiders. His journey is of great relevance to teachers, administrators, and parents longing for quality education in America. His frank story shows that the solutions for impoverished schools are far from simple.
“Teacher is a must-read for any teacher candidate who is inspired to help poor students achieve the American Dream. Yet, Teacher is not a depressing book. With lyrical prose and many laugh-out-loud stories, Copperman’s account is beautiful as well as sobering.
—Nicole Louie, assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Texas at El Paso; and former middle school mathematics teacher on the south side of Chicago, who has worked with teachers in Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland
“As an English and writing professor, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta has been an excellent book for me to assign to students. The writing is accessible while also being challenging. It moves students while also requiring them to look at their own deeply held beliefs and convictions about race and what we think of as American meritocracy. Because Michael Copperman places himself in shoes we’d like to believe we would fill—we are good people, who only want to help—teachers and students identify with his experiences, and the book resonates deeply because of it.”
—Heather Ryan, professor, Wenatchee Valley Community College
“Michael Copperman’s Teacher isn’t an ‘easy’ read. I squirmed. I squinted my eyes—as though doing so could make the truth of his words smaller. I continued forward knowing my discomfort was the result of an honest voice I needed to hear. Copperman’s story is the truth shared by all educators about our best intentions, our naïve betrayals, regrets that hiss in our memories. Teacher in itself is the act of teaching. It’s not about naming what’s right or wrong. It’s about what’s real and what we can learn from it.”
—Erin Fristad, educator and author of The Glass Jar
“Teacher is a very important book for aspiring administrators to read. Through a personal story, Copperman powerfully articulates the struggles of beginning teachers, the profound needs of students, and the system barriers that prevent teachers from meeting these needs. . . . Copperman’s words in Teacher provide a call to action that can’t be ignored by administrators.”
—Nancy Golden, former superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and chief education officer for the state of Oregon
“I assigned Teacher in upper-level ‘Education Studies.’ My intention with the course was to explore issues that students had become familiar with, through phrases like ‘The Achievement Gap’ and ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline,’ that distance them from the actual lives that are impacted by these structures. Copperman’s book guides students, still a few years from becoming classroom teachers, to think through the complexity of teaching, as ideals, hopes, and intentions entangle with the unforeseen—systems of inequity and deep historical injustices—even while continuing to teach. Neat narratives about teaching are standard in pre-service teacher programs, and students who have become critical appreciate a bit of honesty about how messy the undertaking of teaching is for so many of us. In an educational landscape that increasingly wants to measure and quantify that which is in excess of measurement and quantification, Copperman’s book is a welcome opportunity to dive into the uncertainty that characterizes actual teaching lives.”
—Asilia Franklin, School of Education, University of Oregon
“Teacher should be required reading for preservice teaching candidates as they prepare for their field placements. They will be challenged to consider their own values.”
—Dr. Michael Cormack Jr., chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, former elementary school principal, and adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi
“The real power of Teacher is that Copperman looks out as much as he looks in. He is alive to the place itself, to the horrors and beauties of the Delta, the segregated towns and tangled bayous, and, like any good teacher, Copperman is honest about and careful with the lives and stories of his students.”
—Joe Wilkins, professor at Linfield College and author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry and the poetry collection When We Were Birds