Little money, no prestige, but Will Keim '04 is 'making a difference' thanks to Teach for America

Will Keim '04 could be making a bundle; instead, he's making a difference.

As a graduate of Cornell's top-ranked engineering physics program, Keim could have had a high starting salary or acceptance into a graduate program at a leading research institution. What he chose, however, was a two-year commitment to teach science to high school students in Oakland, Calif., with Teach For America (TFA).

Both of Keim's parents are teachers, his mother at an elementary school and his father at a community college, so Keim has teaching in his blood. But he was also drawn to TFA's mission to eliminate educational inequality.

"I've always wanted to do something where I felt I was making a difference and having an immediate impact," said Keim, now a TFA alumnus in his fourth year teaching ninth-grade conceptual physics at Oakland Technical High School.

Keim is not alone. TFA has been one of the top 10 employers of Cornell graduates as well as new graduates nationally for the past several years. The organization is very selective -- accepting 2,400 of 19,000 applicants -- and targets such top-ranked schools as Cornell, Yale and Duke. They want the best, and it takes more than smarts to break through to the students they are trying to reach. The organization looks for recruits who won't give up when the going gets tough.

Yet Frank Wise, Cornell professor of applied and engineering physics with whom Keim did undergraduate research, was surprised when he learned Keim was joining TFA.

"There's not much money in it. No prestige. His friends are all going to law school, medical school, graduate programs," Wise said. "They [TFA teachers] go through a lot and sacrifice a lot of earning potential, so these kids deserve a lot of credit."

Members are paid directly by their school districts, generally receiving the same salaries and health benefits as other beginning teachers, ranging from $25,000 to $44,000. Because TFA is a member of AmeriCorps, members can also get a break on their student loans during their two years of service, plus a stipend of $4,725 each year.

Like many members, Keim used his stipend to enroll in teacher certification courses, a requirement for all uncertified teachers. He had considered staying at Cornell to earn his certification, but found TFA's guarantee of a teaching position and express ticket to the classroom preferable to paying for a fifth year of tuition. But he did have to endure a kind of teacher boot camp -- five weeks of intense training over the summer, including supervised teaching.

Keim regularly works 12- and 14-hour days, picking up one student who does not have transportation to school in the morning and working into the evening and on weekends as the school's staff professional development chair, assistant baseball coach and Saturday school teacher.

"He's an exceptional person and a wonderful teacher," said Tobi Page, Oakland Tech's assistant principal. "He makes science come alive. The students love his class."

Keim said some friends have had a hard time understanding his choice to continue teaching.

"Even now, people are like, 'You're teaching? What?' But I'm very happy with what I'm doing," he said. "I'm not stuck here. I'm choosing to stay here."

Keim doesn't plan on spending his entire career as a teacher, but he does plan on remaining in education, perhaps as an administrator or as a TFA staff member.

"I enjoy it and believe very strongly in what I'm doing and want to find a way to just broaden the effect that I can have," he said.

Robert Emro is a communications specialist in the College of Engineering. The story was originally published in the Cornell Engineering Magazine, spring 2007.

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