(Photography by Don Kadair: Lucas Spielfogel)
At 22 years old, Lucas Spielfogel was “in a very uncertain place.” He was captain of the rowing team at Yale University, and between wrapping up his final season with the team and completing his history degree, there wasn’t much time to plan for the future.
Teach for America maintains a heavy presence on Yale’s campus, and professors will even let recruiters make pitches to their classes. When Spielfogel first applied to join the TFA corps, he wasn’t certain he wanted to go through with it, although his interest grew as he did more research into the organization.
“The honest truth is that at the time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalls. “This seemed like a really good, really important, interesting, compelling thing to do while I figured that out.”
Spielfogel was accepted into TFA and sent for training at Delta State University in West Cleveland, Mississippi. He lived in a dorm with other TFA trainees, catching a bus at 5:30 a.m. and working “easily 100 hours a week.” He says he was happy to get four or five hours of sleep a night.
“What was surprising was how much I enjoyed it,” he says. “There was a great deal of camaraderie.”
Spielfogel didn’t start his first year teaching seventh grade social studies at Baker Middle until mid-September. He says the job became available because the original teacher, fed up with constant classroom disruption, quit.
“The school was just very dysfunctional,” he says. “My first day was really difficult. I remember having a surreal feeling, wondering how I was going to make it through two years.”
Spielfogel says he didn’t see violence at the school, and he doesn’t blame the kids, or any particular adult, for the lack of structure. But for whatever reason, it had gotten to a point where any teacher that tried to create order in the classroom was in conflict with the school’s overall culture.
“I come from a privileged background,” he says. “I have had the best educational opportunities available.” So the disorganization at Baker Middle at that time was a shock.
That first semester was rough. But he bought a little “street cred” by volunteering to be the school basketball coach, and he spent the Christmas break working on new strategies to engage and discipline his students.
He suspects that he earned a bit of respect from his class by coming back for the second half of the year. He says he was twice named “teacher of the year,” launched a community service club, and raised $10,000 to send a group of his students to Washington, D.C.
His entire two years as a teacher—the minimum required by Teach for America—was a challenge. Spielfogel says he improved steadily throughout his time at Baker Middle, and his students’ performance got better as well.
Even so, he felt constant uneasiness and stress. Although his classroom had improved, the school itself still was not a pleasant work environment. He was away from his family, and he didn’t really have a life outside of work.
“When you’re in Teach for America,” he muses, “you’re not establishing a life for yourself. … It was unsustainable for me.”
Dan Kahn, another TFA alum who founded the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, was looking for a successor to lead the organization. At first, Spielfogel wasn’t interested; he was ready to leave Louisiana and start a business career. But after a number of conversations, he began to see a great leadership opportunity, and he developed a passion for the coalition’s mission.
BRYC works with high-achieving high school students from low-income backgrounds, helping them get into college with a plan to pay for it. An “action plan” is developed for each student, who receive tutoring and are taught to advocate for themselves. There are 160 students in BRYC now, and about 115 alumni are either in college or have graduated, Spielfogel says.
He isn’t looking to leave BRYC any time soon. But he would love it if one day, a BRYC alum returns to take his place.