Mr. Olvet's opus

January 19, 2001

Dan Genz, <i>Hullabaloo</i> main section editor

Kristian Olvet was a Tulane frat boy, a swimmer, a science major who spent his upperclassmen years in the neuroscience and psychobiology laboratory working on a senior thesis that never came to fruition. He was a tour guide who backpedaled around campus telling prospective students tales about how the windows on Stern Hall spell out "LSU sucks" in Morse code and that the library is slowly sinking into the ground under the weight of the books.

Teach For America turned him into Mr. Olvet, the tie-wearing science teacher at Public School #22 in Jersey City, N.J. Now, he spends his days enthralling inner-city 13- and 14-year-olds with the prospect of dissecting frogs and other critters on the lab table.

Olvet is the only science teacher at Public School #22 and knows they will be scrapping to find new teachers when he leaves the city at the end of the semester to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He is one of Teach for America's success stories.

The program, which is dedicated to finding recent college graduates to teach at underprivileged schools for two years, is bringing Olvet back to Tulane's campus on Jan. 25 and 26 to recruit some qualified graduating seniors to reach out to the children he never got to teach.

The program is directed toward the person who is willing to spend some time teaching before they join what Olvet calls "the go-go-go" pace of "gotta get a job, gotta get into grad school, gotta do this ..." post-college life.

Two years back, Olvet was in that position when he came across a Teach For America recruiter. He learned about the program and thought it would be a positive way to affect his surroundings. The program is now recruiting at every college in the country, trying to combat the nation's alarming teacher shortage with an army of qualified recent graduates. They are looking for applicants interested in every field from history to math and especially biologists and science majors like Olvet.

Forty Tulane students applied to join Teach For America last year, and this year, the program's campus recruiting coordinator, Vanessa Cortinas, is trying to bump the number up to 60. She's trying to find students who have always wanted to do something positive with their education and have always had an inkling in the back of their heads that said someday they'd like to teach. Olvet is her best weapon.

He will talk about how important an experience the program is for a young person straight out of college. He will bring up America's teaching shortage, delve into the under-qualified nature of a great percentage of America's science teachers and talk to the classes of his old professors with hopes of reaching students with science backgrounds. He will talk about the rewards and advantages of dedicating some time to help children. The recruiting part isn't going to be a walk in the park for Olvet.

He said, "People already have preconceived notions about these two years and don't want to waste them. They're thinking go-go-go." "Students don't always realize what a great challenge and experience this can be," Cortinas said.

Olvet said it's well worth the difficulties, despite the great change in perspective from academia. "Teaching is a little bit different world. When you're at school, everything rests on your shoulders. If you study and do the work, you determine how well you do. Now my success depends on the success of my students, some of whom have experiences that don't always prepare them for learning what I have to teach for them to be successful at the next level."

Olvet said understanding the material in a way that makes the textbook a tool rather than a crutch is the most important thing the teacher needs to learn. He feels a Tulane education in science is a great background for any basic high school or middle school science class and that all he needed from Teach For America was a little guidance to be prepared.

The program hosts a six-week teacher training seminar at its headquarters in Houston where it brings in all the applicants Olvet and Cortinas have recruited and gives them a crash course in teaching.

"It crams everything you could get from majoring in education into a summer.... I felt just as ready to teach as anyone else teaching in the school," Olvet said. "When you close the door on your first day of class and see 30 pairs of eyes staring at you and you realize you're in charge, you feel a little bit shocked. I don't think anything can prepare you for that feeling."

Olvet likes the freedom of being the only science teacher and having a say concerning what the students are going to learn. Olvet says he went through some jitters about the safety of teaching in a school in a bad area. He lived in Jersey City and taught the students in a well-maintained school without having any problems with gangs or street-violence. He says the administration kept all the kids in line and there weren't any problems.

The Teach For America Web site has letters and tape-recorded memoirs from five different teachers that talk about what the program entails. They sell the experience with a two-punch drama that lands a jab with violence and hooks with an epiphany. Michael Johnstonthe teacher, not the track starstarts his letter by recalling the three members of his high school in Washington County, Miss., that died over the summer between his two years of teaching. He tells a story about a Teach For America colleague who had one victim's brother in the same class with the boy charged for his murder.

He asks, "Where to begin? Complex equations? Polynomials? Forgiveness?" Johnston then (after spending a paragraph reliving how he formed the school's chess club and made it bigger than the school's football team in only a year) tells the story of Curtis Jones, a sixth-year senior who sat in the back of the class and seemed to gaze mindlessly at the blackboard, utterly unfazed by the vivid discussion about mythology.

When the test day came, Jones appeared at Johnston's desk later in the day to find out what he got on his test. The previously forgotten student wrote a well-articulated comparison between Greek mythology and Christianity that made Johnston see he was making a wide-scale difference in a student's life, and take a moment to smile.

Kristian Olvet doesn't tell a shocking and feel-good story straight out of the script for "Dangerous Minds," like Johnston's letter did. None of his students got shot. He didn't look up at a student one day and think, "Wow!" "I know epiphany moments make for great stories, but I couldn't give you an epiphany moment. Every day is filled with times I'm teaching when I think for a moment that this isn't worth all the work and a thousand other moments when I think I'm really teaching these students something. The simple things, you know, like when a student will recall something I taught a year ago," Olvet said.

For more information check or contact Vanessa Cortinas at to find out how to see Kristian Olvet speak when he comes to campus next weekend.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000