Last week, I saw on Facebook and Twitter that the first members of the 2011 Teach for America corps had received their offers of admission. I think that’s amazing and congratulate all the new members of the corps!
The Opportunities Project is a supporter of Teach for America (TFA) and its mission to ensure that everyone has the right to an excellent education. Over the last few years, Teach for America has been a force to be reckoned with in college recruiting. Last year, TFA was the largest employer of Yale graduates and 18% of all seniors applied for a slot in the corps. That means powerhouse investment banks and management-consulting firms are competing with a teaching program for the top talent. Why I think that is happening is a topic for another blog post.
If you read my bio, you know I started my career as a TFA corps member, teaching fourth grade and sixth grade in Washington Heights. I had always done well in school, but my high school experience had been very disengaging to me and I had little respect for teachers. When I started college, I was in the film production program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse and was planning my career in media domination. There were lots of little decisions and big experiences during my time at Syracuse that led me from media to the public policy program at Maxwell School and then Teach for America, but the most influential was likely my first semester in college.
Before getting to Syracuse, it never occurred to me that I would have trouble fitting in or that I would feel intimidated. But I struggled my first semester. I wondered if I really deserved to attend a private college with all of these other students- someone who had never been on airplane, someone who had never been to camp, and someone who had never heard the phrase Advanced Placement. But I realized that even though I hadn’t had all those experiences, I had advantages over other students, and they were my fourth grade teacher Mr. Brodeur and my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Desrosiers at the Wood School in Fairhaven, MA. They had taught me work ethic and the belief that I could have dreams and achieve them with focused effort and resilience. Even though my high school had let me down, the marks of the good teachers I had carried forever and I wanted to return the favor to other kids like me.
My experience with Teach for America over the last thirteen years has been up and down. Back when I did the corps, there was a tenth of the support they now offer corps members and I regularly got my ass kicked by my students. (I still talk to many of them now and I love how respectful they are in pretending this wasn’t the case). And in TFA’s efforts to set and meet ambitious goals for their alumni, they established tracks for career success (principalship, teaching, elected officials, etc.) and if you weren’t on one of those narrow tracks, my experience for many years was that I didn’t belong. However, I’ve seen in the last year that’s changing, too. Unresolved issues are my mixed emotions about their expansion in this time of municipal budget cuts and teacher layoffs, and my overwhelming desire to start a Facebook group called Shut. Up. John. Legend. But neither takes away from the benefits for students that wouldn’t happen without TFA, and the power of being part of a network of 20,000 alumni who are doing their part to make things better in this country.
Teach for America is not for everyone, even if you meet their rigorous selection model. But if you think you can make changes for young people through your relentless effort and courage, I encourage you to research the program, whether you are graduating this fall or are a professional. Their next application deadline is December 17th. Any questions for this alum, send them in.