In 2010, when Karen Slough (BSFCS ’10, Child and Family Development) stepped off the Sanford Stadium stage at the University of Georgia graduation, she also stepped away from her academic studies of child and family development for a hands-on teaching job, under the auspices of Teach for America.
Slough had never before considered a career in teaching. She’d never been to Memphis, either. Yet when Teach for America came calling, she considered what a couple of years spent helping underprivileged children at an inner-city school might mean to her career, and strength of character, down the road. Slough set her sights, and GPS, for that city perched atop the Mississippi River’s grassy bluffs.
Along with the geographic move, Slough stepped out of her comfort zone, having attended schools that had only the best to offer. “But just knowing that these kids come from families that often can’t provide basic needs made me want to give back,” she says. Kingsbury, whose students are predominately African American and Hispanic, has made the state of Tennessee’s list of low-performing schools.
The key to such a move is having a certain flexibility, and Slough credits her time at UGA—where she switched from an early plan as an animal-health major to the child and family development track—for helping her through her transition to teaching as well. “With the help of the wonderful faculty and staff at UGA, I was able to persevere when I doubted myself,” she says. “These lessons in perseverance have come in handy during my time in Memphis because, with no background in education, I started teaching with very little knowledge of the practice. There were times when I was ready to give up— throw in the towel, pack my bags, and head home—except I remembered my lessons from UGA and realized that just because I might not be successful right away doesn’t mean I can’t be.”
But one of her CFD professors, David Wright, also notes the “strength and stature” that Slough herself brings to the table. “She is not afraid to face challenges and fears and move forward,” he says. “I find her to be inspiring. She gives me hope for the future.”
This is just the sort of person that Teach for America tries to recruit for fulfilling its mission to expand educational opportunities in low-performing areas. Slough filled out a basic application to begin a round of interviews. After surviving that first round she completed a second application and was then able to request specific locationsat which to teach. Hawaii, of course, was her first choice, but as she brings her second year in Memphis to a close Slough says she has been happy there.
Kingsbury needed a science teacher, a subject she had very little background in. Here again, Slough’s flexibility served her, and it benefited her students as well. As she’s fond of telling them, “Every time we answer a question, we’re one step closer to becoming a scientist and to learning how our world works.”
Aside from the subject area, Slough also goes above and beyond when it comes to mentoring children, regularly shuttling them back and forth from school to home—essentially a taxi service through some of the city’s most downtrodden streets. In addition, she has given her phone number to the kids and makes herself available after school hours to answer questions about homework. She has also created a Facebook fan page to post reminders about upcoming quizzes and field trips.
And even after they’ve moved on, Slough wants her students to know she’ll still be with them. “I love them so much. I want them to do well and I’m going to do whatever it takes, even if that means they’re still calling me next year.”
As much as she has enjoyed the time with her students, her plan, once the commitment is up at Kingsbury, is to return to the Atlanta area. She’ll take with her the knowledge that “what I really enjoy about teaching, more than the subject content, is the mentoring side of it—having the opportunity to teach kids how to make the really tough choices they face.” Slough’s colleagues think that she will carefully make her own tough choices and go on to numerous other achievements. “She is an example of the kind of person who will do an excellent job no matter what profession she chooses,” says Ronald Mackin, Kingsbury’s principal.
She is focused, energetic, and passionate about her work. She strives to be a very effective and influential teacher and invests in the lives of her students.”