Two Years in the Mississippi Delta
A mesmerizing account of the realities of working with Teach For America in one of the country's poorest and most challenged regions
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.
"Riveting. Phenomenal. A fearless memoir, achingly alive with beauty, hope, and heartbreak, Michael Copperman’s Teacher shines a light on American race, poverty, stereotypes and the parts of ourselves, as a nation, we desperately need to start talking about but prefer to pretend do not exist. Copperman’s humanity is evident on every single page. "- Margaret Malone, author of People Like You
"Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta is a lush, evocative, tough-minded memoir that allows us a glimpse into the troubled public schools of the Mississippi Delta, a world too many of us have no idea exists. As a former Delta TFA corp member, and as someone who cares deeply about Mississippi, I was knocked out by the pure, hard honesty of Copperman's story; with wisdom and care, he hauls this beautiful, troubled world onto the page. And his portrayal of his students—such vivid, enchanting young people—nearly broke my heart. Really, this is a barnburner of a memoir—powerfully told, intellectually convincing, and emotionally fraught. "- Joe Wilkins, author of The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"A compelling story about one of the most urgent challenges facing our country today. Michael Copperman weaves personal history and national statistics into a narrative that is at once heartbreaking and crucial. Crippled by the epidemic of educational disparity, this engaging memoir about a young professor’s journey into the Mississippi Delta’s impoverished districts to teach children how to read and write, how to find their voices and break their silence is what we look for in storytelling. A bold and important new book. "- Mario Alberto Zambrano, author of Lotería: A Novel
"Teacher is not only the role Michael Copperman struggles to fill as a recent Stanford grad working in one of the poorest schools in rural Mississippi; it is also a fine description of what this memoir does for its reader. We are used to thinking of the children of America’s flagging education system as numbers; Copperman’s powerful and revealing storytelling delivers the children to us, their lives, their voices, and their undeniable potential. It is a work of tremendous skill, honesty, and heart. "- Katie Williams, author of The Space Between Trees and Absent