As the mother of children who have been taught by Teach For America (TFA) teachers and as the former colleague of more than 20 TFA teachers and administrators, I’m grateful to the organization for believing in the potential of America’s children.
Co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard sums it up for me here:
The problem we’ve taken on is massive and incredibly complex, but 25 years in, we’ve seen through our work and that of our colleagues in this movement that this great injustice of educational equity is solvable.
This year marks Teach for America’s 25th anniversary and if there’s one piece they seem to get right, it’s the question of priorities. While far too many bemoan our communities of poverty as intractable social ills, their teachers do the exhausting work of teaching the children who live in them.
As we read stories year after year about how poorly the American teaching force reflects the students in the seats, TFA has made the racial diversity of its teachers a top priority. This year’s corps is the most diverse ever, with 49 percent of its teachers being non-white (as compared to less than 20 percent of traditionally trained teachers). Additionally, a third of their 2015-16 cohort are first generation college students. Thanks to TFA, so many more of America’s children will actually be able to see themselves in the adults who teach them.
Many leaders in education have gotten their start in the field by applying to Teach For America. Tommy Chang, Boston’s new schools superintendent, started out as a sixth-grade science teacher for Teach For America; today, he finds himself holding a Ph.D in education and leads one of the best big city school systems in the country.
Teach For America certainly has its detractors, and although I’ve tried to truly hear their gripes, they just don’t resonate with me.
At a time of record teacher shortages across the U.S., our children need us to put talented people in front of them any way we can. Some are critical of the fact that TFA only requires a two-year commitment to teaching; however, since traditional teaching programs require a zero year commitment, that criticism rings a bit hollow for me.
Great teachers begin their journeys many different ways and each of these paths deserve to be respected and valued. There is a cognitive dissonance with those who rail against what they see as a disrespected profession only to then turn around and disrespect the thousands of teachers who enter the profession, whether temporarily or forever, through Teach For America.
As with all training programs, there is no guarantee that everyone will be great. But Teach For America is a highly selective program that puts a highly diverse group of smart graduates in classrooms with the kids who need them most.
They are an invaluable piece of the puzzle of serving the students in today’s classrooms.