Guest Post by Jamie Paul
Program Coordinator for Campus and Community Outreach,
NAU Career Development at University College
Maybe you have always known what you want to do with your life. Maybe you have not. One really fabulous thing about our lives as 21st century college graduates, is that we have the opportunity to contribute to the world in many different capacities. We don’t have to pick one career the day after graduation and hope it sticks, but are much more likely to have multiple interrelated careers- sort of a portfolio approach to the career path. You could start your portfolio with a nice, handy, short-term package that might just change your long-term life. Teach for America was that opportunity for me.
Teach for America is a member of the AmeriCorps National Service network. It was started as a thesis project at Princeton University and grew from 500 corps members in 1990 to nearly 40,000 corps members and alumni today. I committed to teach for two years in inner-city Houston and ended up staying for four, even though I cried for most of year one. Fifth grade lesson plans on hurricanes combined with principals who do not believe “these kids” should have recess can be harsh. I met lifelong friends and learned more than I thought I already knew. Going into teaching through TFA or entering any field as one of an explicitly created cohort of recent graduates is a different sort of experience than you get entering any sector as a traditional new employee.
Corps members become part of a team that is explicitly focused on inequality while also zeroing in on Diego’s reading skills, Mariah’s counting ability, and Maribel’s understanding of the periodic table. As a corps member, you are one of many mission-minded young teachers who have explicitly dedicated themselves to making systemic and personal change happen –you are in essence a known trouble maker with backup. This sort of all-encompassing work-life is ideally situated for new graduates out to get things done. This sort of mission brings together people from many very different economic and cultural backgrounds, which is remarkable given the economic and racial segregation in our current educational system. TFA corps members and the communities that welcome them create an atmosphere in which the lasting effects of income dictated opportunity are immediately obvious and relevant.
Graduating is hard. Teaching is hard. Jumping into teaching as a member of a group founded with rigorous and urgent systemic change in mind is clearly not a cake walk. You can find blogs and articles for and against TFA all over the web. I would encourage you to read both sides of the situation. If you want to make an impact and can’t wait to see what you are made of, TFA (or another program like it) could be just the thing you are looking for. I know corps members who are still teaching 10, 20, even 30 years later, while nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. I know other TFA alumni who went on to become writers, directors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, principals, policy-makers, librarians, ballerinas … OK, not ballerinas. No matter where they are, they continue to work in some capacity for the type of society where every child matters, and we need more people doing that no matter where they work or how they got there.
I recruited a few friends to share a bit about their experience as a Corps Member:
Tre Johnson Houston ’02
NOW: I am a Board Liaison for Camden City School District in Camden, NJ. I work out of the Superintendent’s Office (himself a TFA alum) managing the relationships between the district, our district advisory board, and various stakeholders throughout Camden.
THEN: I was a HS English teacher at Lee HS in Houston, TX, and as a young teacher, my TFA/classroom experience was absolutely life-changing. I was a child of lower-income, hard scrabble experiences myself, but it wasn’t until being a classroom teacher that I grew to understand how many other kids lived similar and more challenging experiences than mine. Being in the classroom made me incredibly angry about the types of injustices out there for systemically under-resourced communities and schools. I had planned on becoming a writer after TFA, but I instead found myself drawn to advocating for systemic equality for all kids and families. I haven’t looked back.
Reada Glitman Wilkinson – Houston ‘00
NOW: I am currently the Elementary Director of Instruction at Almaty International School in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
THEN: I think TFA is why I am where I am today. My adult life started as a teacher, and I am still in education 14 years later. My TFA experience was challenging but amazing. I was a self -contained special education teacher in a school without a cluster because I got hired the day before school started. Perhaps because I was “alone” I was able to build strong relationships with many of my colleagues. I stayed on after my 2 year commitment for an additional two years as a second grade teacher. While teaching, I became involved in teacher training, which led to my next position as a Training Coordinator for the Houston Independent School District. After two years of that, I decided to fuse my love of teaching with travel and began my career as an international educator.