James Madison University

Education from Experience: Social Work in the Classroom

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: May 9, 2014

PHOTO: John Harper

But that will not stop me from being a phenomenal teacher that will enable students to obtain an exceptional education. My story shows that anyone can make a difference.Pending graduation, many seniors may feel anxiety over searching for a job or applying to graduate school, but for John Harper, a senior in the Department of Social Work, his future comes with the opportunity to teach underprivileged and underserved youth in Alabama through Teach for America.

“I could not think of a better way to make a visible impact on the lives of young people other than to be with them in the classroom for eight hours a day, five days a week,” Harper said.

Harper’s initial decision to begin pursuing Teach for America as a post-graduate option was piqued by a friend at JMU who would enter the corps after his graduation in 2013.

“It was the discussions that I had with him that truly turned my simple curiosity into genuine interest,” Harper said. He also attributes his interest in Teach for America to the knowledge he has gained through his major in social work about social injustice.

Harper added that many events from his life built up his decision to apply to the corps, including seeing nine of his closest friends become incarcerated for gang-related crimes, and contemplating dropping out of high school.

“I know what it is like to feel inadequate, unwanted, and hopeless, but I also know that having someone in your corner can make all the difference. I applied to be a TFA corps member so that I can be a teacher that motivates, believes in, and validates my students. I will inspire people to reach their highest potential.”

During the 2013-2014 academic year, Harper became an on-campus recruiter for Teach for America. In this position he participated in planning meetings to find effective ways to build awareness for TFA recruitment; formed partnerships with the Center for Multicultural Student Services; posted advertisements; and held creative events like writing thank you notes to professors

Theresa Tweedie, a senior social work major, worked with Harper as a fellow recruiter.

She said that the experience helped her both personally and professionally by pushing her to hone her time management skills and to think critically about why she was interested in joining TFA.

A major part of the position required both Tweedie and Harper to facilitate 60 presentations throughout the semester in classroom settings and with individuals. While Tweedie enjoyed presenting to large groups, she said that Harper thrived more when speaking directly to students. In the end, she said, learning how to build professional relationships was a huge benefit of the internship because that is one of the most important aspects of the TFA corps role.

While Harper contends that the position did not give him a leg up in the application process, he said the experience was paramount to his acceptance into the corps.

He said this position also allowed him to build upon his knowledge of education inequality in the United States, in addition to being in contact with current and former TFA corps members who he said provided guidance and wisdom from their experience.

Harper also said that during the application process, there were many times when he wanted to throw in the towel due to the thoroughness of it.

“What I found solace in was the fact that the process was meant to weed people in, not out. There is no quota or cutoff for the number of applicants that can be accepted, the more applicants that get through the process, the better.”

When asked if anything makes him apprehensive about beginning this next chapter of his career in social work, Harper said it is the fear that he will be ineffective. But when reflecting on his future with the core, he draws confidence from teachers who have helped bring him to this point.

“The teacher that made the largest difference in my life and helped me to receive a great education had a degree in Home Economics. She believed that I already had the ability to achieve within me, and she set high expectations and worked with me so that I could successfully use what I already had. The students we serve are at rock bottom, just like I was. When you are at the bottom you want someone who will believe in you, and fight with and for you.”