7/8 of my teaching commitment is almost over. I knew the time would fly (it always does…), but it’s still hard to believe that it’s been two years since I came down to Memphis that first time with my family the winter after I got in to Teach For America. It will be very hard to leave this community of friends and teachers and students, but I am excited about learning more about what I can do on a larger scale for education reform. (That phrase, “educational reform,” has a negative connotation, but I don’t think anyone would argue that there is much to be desired about the American school system. No matter if you’re for or against charters, for or against unions, for or against programs like Teach For America, we can agree that American education can be much, much better and much, much fairer.)
For all the criticisms of Teach For America, the experience undeniably changes the lives of corps members. Whether or not having a Teach For America teacher drastically changes the trajectory of a student’s life still remains a point of contention, but being a Teach For America corps member has shifted the trajectory of my life toward a commitment to educational equity. I knew I wanted to join the corps for years before I could actually apply, but I had no idea where to take my life beyond two years of teaching. I’m still not certain, though I will be heading to law school (and potentially grad school in education policy) in the fall, but I know that I will actively seek out opportunities to continue to work toward the goal of “one day…”
There are stories even more elegant than mine that truly stir the spirit and the belief that this movement could actually be a movement. I think of “movement,” and I think civil rights and suffrage and Occupy (for better or worse), not education, but when I think of some of the people I teach with and know in the organization, I begin to picture Teach For America as a spark to the movement for educational equity.
One of my roommates was certified to teach in her home state and instead chose to apply to Teach For America (which wasn’t yet in her state) and came to Memphis. She is a rock-star teacher and relationship-builder with her students and the soccer boys she coaches and will either remain teaching here or potentially teach in New Orleans next year. Another roommate, like me, worked on Teach For America staff before joining the corps, and she is also considering staying in Memphis. These are young people who had absolutely no connection to this city who have now been inspired to effect greater change in their adopted home.
A co-worker/fellow corps member had never given teaching a second thought before hearing about Teach For America in his senior year of college. He hadn’t even thought about staying until this year, and he’s now being wooed by charters in Memphis and Denver, the Achievement School District, and Teach For America because of his drive and leadership ability.
This is the beauty of Teach For America. Beyond being an organization that is largely well put-together and a dream to work for, Teach For America uncovers and fosters a passion in ordinary, unsuspecting people who then do extraordinary things. I think of where the students at my school would be without some of the corps members I teach or taught with. What if no one put TFA on Mr. K.’s radar two years ago? Would there be a swim team if Ms. R. hadn’t started one last year? What if Ms. H. had never applied? And Mr. A., after two years here, is now making great gains with his students at a KIPP school in his home state. No one’s to say the students would be worse off, but I truly believe that having Teach For America teachers who are also taking leadership roles in the school and community has had a tremendous positive impact on many of them.
This is why raising awareness and recruiting are so important; this is why I love calling prospective corps members and accepted corps members. The next person to join could be the next transformational leader, could be the person to change the educational landscape for the better. There are strong leaders among us already, and we are only growing more.