CHESTERTOWN - Just a month after graduating from Washington College, Amanda Whitaker boarded a plane taking her more than 1,500 miles away from her home near Chestertown. After only five weeks of training in Houston and a summer to get settled, she'll be teaching a full classroom of middle school students this fall.
"It's kind of surreal. I still feel like college was just a couple of days ago, and now I'm a teacher," she said in a phone interview Sunday. "It hasn't really hit me yet, but that's what I am. I'm a teacher."
Whitaker, 21, couldn't have predicted she'd be teaching middle school math or science a year ago. Going into her senior year at Washington College, she had no idea what she wanted to do after graduation. She was was looking into programs with Americorps when a supervisor recommended Teach for America.
Although she was unfamiliar with the non-profit organization, it wasn't the first time someone had encouraged Whitaker to go into teaching.
"My mom always told me I should teach. She said, 'You like kids. You like to help people, you seem to care a lot about things other than what's going on in your own world.' I've always been interested in community service and helping others," she said. "Teaching is the ultimate way of helping someone else."
She sent in her recommendation forms, résumé and letter of intent this winter, then participated in a day-long interview process in Baltimore. Competition was tough: of the 47,000 people who applied for Teach for America this year – 5,000 were accepted. Only one was from Kent or Queen Anne's counties.
Whitaker was swept up in last-minute work on her senior capstone project, which was due the next day, when the acceptance letter arrived in the mail telling her she'd be teaching in Raymondville, Texas.
"I was already emotionally drained. I saw I was accepted and I was so proud of myself I started crying right there," she said. "I saw where it would be and I was so nervous and scared. It was such an emotionally charged moment."
According to its website, Teach for America's mission is to provide high-quality education to children in low-income areas. Teachers sign on for at least a two-year commitment, helping students in more than 40 regions nationwide.
"We believe that one day, all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, and unfortunately in our country that's not the case right now," said Whitaker, a Queen Anne's County High School graduate. "There are a lot of areas where if you're born there or have a certain socioeconomic education, you won't have the same opportunities as someone who was born into another situation. We're working to completely eradicate that process."
Institute training was an exhaustive five weeks. Whitaker said she was up by 6 a.m. every day, spent her afternoons teaching summer school students, and filled the rest of the day with training sessions and lesson-planning clinics.
"I had never been in front of an entire classroom, and there's no feeling you get like when you're staring out at a classroom with those dozen eyes staring back at you," she said. "That first day I was nervous, but it surprised me how naturally teaching came."
Whitaker's passion for volunteerism flourished in college, earning her an Outstanding Community Service Recognition Award upon graduation. In fact, some of her fondest Washington College experiences were with Habitat for Humanity, where she and a group of students collaborated for a week to build a house for a family in need. She traveled to Columbus, Ga. three times with Habitat, forming close relationships with both her fellow volunteers and the families in the area.
"It was awesome. The feeling of looking at the house, and not thinking, 'I built that house,' but, 'We built that house,' that was really cool," she said.
Habitat was a major influence in her decision to join Teach for America. She said she looks forward to finishing her two-year commitment in Raymondville and "looking back at all the friends I made for life and all the things I'll accomplish."
"I've had that experience before and it felt great in the past, so I know I'll feel great in the future," she said.
Although she's feeling confident about teaching now, she had her doubts in the months leading up to institute training. An American history major and English minor, she was especially concerned when she learned about what subject she'd be teaching.
Teachers are placed in classrooms based on needs in the area, and Whitaker was told Rio Grande Valley schools are facing extreme shortages in math and science teachers.
"It was nerve-wracking at first, but when I heard that fact, I knew I had to do it," she said. "I feel like they've done a very good job in preparing me as much has they can. It would be impossible for me to feel completely prepared because I'm just throwing myself into it and I've never done it before, but I do feel as prepared as I could possibly be."
Along with honing her classroom skills, she said connecting with fellow newcomers was one of the most valuable aspects of her five weeks in Houston.
"There wasn't a single person whose heart and mind weren't in the right place. I met such great people all working for the same cause. Then you have to say goodbye and you know you won't see them for a while," she said. "It was pretty sad."
She's spending the rest of her summer in foundational training, which focuses on more individualized preparation for the fall, and getting accustomed to life in the Southwest. Raymondville, located in southern Texas, is known as "the gateway to Rio Grande Valley."
Whitaker is car and house hunting now, then she'll have about a month to get settled into life away from her hometown and family.
"I don't really look at it as being on my own, because at any given moment I can always pick up the phone and call another corps member, and they'll be there in a second. Yeah, I'm on my own, but it doesn't feel like that at all," she said. "I've been completely blown away by the support. The staff and other corps members are all here not just to help our students, but to help each other in reaching our final goal."