To learn more about Project Inspire, visit www.projectinspiretn.org
After watching Jamal Lett explain his passion for helping underprivileged students, organizers of TEACH/Here, Chattanooga's teacher residency program, knew the effort was more than just about recruiting qualified educators.
Lett, a resident working with a veteran teacher at Orchard Knob Middle School, explains on video how one of his middle school teachers inspired him to want to do better - inspiration that's stuck with him to the age of 23. Now, he tries to give his students that same gift of inspiration.
"You have to give them a reason to want it. That's what wakes me up every day," he said.
In hearing Lett's philosophy, program organizers realized that the work of TEACH/Here, which places teachers in urban schools, is about more than just job placement.
"His testimony is what told us we named it wrong. This is about more than just academia. It's about people's commitment to a value system," said Cheri Dedmon, the program's director.
Officials have renamed the program Project Inspire and have sharpened its focus.
Sponsored by the Public Education Foundation, the program recruits professionals or recent graduates to teach math and science in hard-to-staff urban schools. The effort was operating in both Knox and Hamilton counties.
In the past, some entered a program to teach math in grades fourth through eighth, while others entered seventh through 12th grades to teach math or science.
Now, the focus will be on teaching fourth- through eighth-grade math in Hamilton County, though the program could expand to other content areas as the needs of local schools change.
Through Project Inspire, prospective teachers spend one year co-teaching alongside a veteran teacher. At the same time, they take graduate classes, earning a master's degree and teaching credentials. Once they finish the residency year, participants commit to teaching in an urban school for four years.
In renaming the organization, Dedmon said leaders kept returning to the theme of inspire because of teachers like Lett's commitment to raising urban students up from low expectations and disadvantages in life. They view the work as a calling.
"These are folks who are really committed to this work to go into schools that are challenging and help families in poverty. This is a commitment around their hearts and a passion for what they feel is really important. They inspired us and they are inspired by the kids," Dedmon said.
Lett, who originally studied to become a doctor, was turned off to the field when he visited a psychiatric hospital during college. Many regulars rotated in and out - some looking for a pill fix, others just looking for a place to lay their heads or get a warm meal.
"I just didn't want to be a part of that," he said. "I wanted to help people before they got to that point."
He thought of ways to reach people earlier in life and decided an education career would give him a better platform for changing prospects of the underprivileged.
"I want to see long-term progression," he said. "A lot of that is education and being an influence, a mentor. I thought TEACH/Here, and now Project Inspire, gave me the means to do that."