Marla Kilfoyle thinks of her lifelong teaching career as lucky, but she's good at spotting an opportunity too.
Back toward the beginning of her career, Kilfoyle and her first husband moved to Florida. They were struggling financially, so she was urgently seeking a teaching job. While reading the local newspaper, she spotted a story about a teacher who had recently died. Assuming that the school now had a need for a teacher, she called. Sure enough, she was asked to come in for an interview.
“I got the job without even knowing what kind of job it was,” she says. “They gave me the dropout prevention kit, so you can imagine what it was like: The students came every day with trauma, they were hungry, and they were very troubled every day.”
The school was in the inner city, where many students were in gangs and dealing or doing drugs. She says one of the female students arrived every morning at 6:30 a.m. because she didn’t want to walk to school during regular hours, when drug dealers would accost her. Seventeen-year-olds were having their second babies. Kilfoyle remembers one student who came to school just to deal drugs.
Initially, the students didn’t trust her. With her blond hair and green eyes, Kilfoyle didn't look like them. So she had to work extra hard to connect in order to do her job.
One student named Chris gave Kilfoyle a hard time during her first month of teaching. She remembers him as tough, badly behaved, and ruling the school. She knew she'd have to reach him in an unconventional way. One day Kilfoyle kept Chris after class to tell him he had to meet her halfway. For her part, she said, she would give him cash every time he got above a B average on his report card.
“I promised him that,” she says. “He was a player and shook kids down for money. He didn’t think I would do it. And I was poor and didn’t really have the money. But the next time he got above a B average and I gave him money, he knew then I was a woman of my word.”
A mutual respect was born. And for a year after Kilfoyle moved to New York, Chris would write her letters, even though he went to prison for beating up police officers.
“Those kids taught me to understand that they are kids, and they come to school without the tools to be able to deal with a lot,” she says. “It allowed me to have empathy. Now, nothing ruffles my feathers—I’ve had kids cuss me out. That was a life-changing event and taught me to learn a kid’s history and know them before you judge them.”
She has a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in social science and a master’s degree in education with a concentration in history. She has earned 75 graduate credits past her master's degree, and each year she is required to take 10 hours of professional development.
“I teach in an amazing district,” she says. “The community is supportive. I love going to work every day. In my district, they value teachers’ voices. I have never been told that I can’t speak up. They value opinions and input, and that’s huge. You feel respected.”
But Kilfoyle doesn't think everyone should air their opinions, at least not right away. For the first three or four years she heeded this advice of her master teachers, which she always shares: “Keep your mouth shut, come to every school function, be part of the community you teach in, and know the culture of your community,” she says. “Many new teachers who come into the profession don’t want to listen and learn.”
Kilfoyle says she hasn't burned out over the years because she never recycles lesson plans. “Like anything, if you don’t change things up, it becomes monotonous,” she says. “You can’t teach everything the same way every year because your kids are different. When you come into a class in September you know that class is going to have a certain personality.”
For those pondering a future in education, she advises that teachers should actually like kids, because she's amazed by how many teachers enter the education field who don’t. According to Kilfoyle, teaching is all about the kids. “If you appreciate everything that kids have to offer,” she says, “their sense of humor, their trauma, and their ups and downs, you will enjoy teaching at the end of the day.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.