Making a difference in the class and out

Clarksville native vows to teach in New Orleans


Alison Silber fell in love with New Orleans - even though she worked there for just 10 days before Hurricane Katrina. The 22-year-old Clarksville native decided to remain after the disaster and assist with Federal Emergency Management Agency relief efforts, despite losing her teaching job.

But two months of bureaucracy took a toll on Silber, who resigned from her FEMA post this month. Silber hopes to return to the classroom, a place where she feels she can make an impact in New Orleans. "It was an often frustrating position," Silber said..

Silber found herself the victim of volunteer burnout - something that has been found throughout many organizations providing service the ravaged Gulf Coast region.

Scott Snyder, spokesman for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., said intense situations like the aftermath of Katrina can make people more susceptible to burnout.

"We encourage breaks for long periods of time so that they [volunteers] can refresh both physically and mentally," said Snyder, whose organization sent more than 200,000 volunteers to assist after Katrina. "It gets difficult. We're running on extreme levels of adrenaline. You don't think about how many hours you work and the intensity."

Silber was in New Orleans as part of Teach for America, a program that recruits recent college graduates and places them in rural and urban public schools. Silber was assigned to teach 11th grade English at Signature High School. After Katrina, she and other local members of the program no longer had schools to teach in, since many of the students evacuated, and facilities were badly damaged.

Eager to help, Silber was linked up with FEMA through a Teach for America liaison. She returned to New Orleans and started working as an individual assistant specialist at a Disaster Recovery Center in Boutte, La., a town about 20 miles from New Orleans.

Silber had fallen in love with the area.

"I loved all the trees, music and how friendly the people were," said Silber, a 2001 graduate of River Hill High School in Clarksville and a 2005 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. "I was really happy with the situation. I didn't want to leave the country after graduation, but I wanted to go somewhere that was very distinct from the rest of the country. That was New Orleans."

So Silber got up every morning, fought an hour of traffic and drove to the FEMA center in Boutte even though there was a center a block from her Uptown New Orleans home. She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the first month.

Her disillusionment came not because of the hours or commute, but because of the helplessness she began to feel when she interacted with FEMA applicants.

"I didn't do anything for applicants except to interpret the bureaucracy of FEMA for them," Silber said.

Silber said she and another Teach for America participant who was also working at the FEMA center began to share tips with applicants on how to get their applications processed.

"Teach for America is very idealistic. We feel we can fix a broken system," Silber said. "When you take that energy and put it into FEMA that is so bureaucratic, it was interesting to watch our idealism slowly crumble away."

James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman based out of Baton Rouge, La., said that his organization's policy prohibited him from discussing current and former employees. But McIntyre said individual assistant specialists are beneficial to the community and to FEMA's commitment to response and recovery efforts.

"Even though she felt she had not served a purpose to the applicants and to FEMA, she served a real benefit," McIntyre said. He added that face-to-face interaction can be very beneficial to applicants. "Someone who does not understand that process might be frustrated because they don't see someone walking out with assistance in their hands."

Now more than ever, Silber wants to get back into the classroom - a place she feels she can make a difference. "You can work in a classroom, and even if your school is corrupt, your classroom can still be great," Silber said.

Her hope is to remain in New Orleans to fulfill her two-year teaching requirement. She recently went on interviews at two of the charter schools that have begun to pop up in that city as residents move back.

But teaching jobs have been scarce in the wake of Katrina, Silber said. Lesser affected school systems have been flooded with hundreds of applications for a limited number of positions. The competition is so tough Silber has found herself up against teachers with decades of experience.

"Most of [my friends] are in the same boat," Silber said. "Half are working for FEMA. The others are scrambling. People are picking up bartending jobs, waitressing jobs, doing whatever they can get."

As she continues her search for employment, Silber is facing the possibility that she may have to work outside of the teaching world until a school job surfaces.

The draw of New Orleans has been enough to keep her put. Still, she has been unable to contact her former students. And she was haunted by what she saw when she returned to the Signature School, the old three-level school where she once worked.

Her second-floor classroom was filled with 6 inches of water, piles of clothes, looted cell phones, cigars and bottles of alcohol. Silber found books in windowsills and desks rearranged to form beds. Silber estimates that 15 people lived in the room for nearly a week.

"It was the single most upsetting part of the hurricane," Silber said. Despite all that, Silber remains optimistic about the future of New Orleans as the city attempts to rebuild.

"I actually see the entire hurricane experience as a way for schools to open up in a better form," said Silber, who was not provided with a single textbook when she taught in New Orleans.

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