This letter to the editor was sent in as a response to an earlier NBN article entitled "Teach for America: the reality behind a lofty goal." The views expressed in this letter reflect those of the writer and not North by Northwestern or Teach for America.
As a Northwestern and Teach For America alumna, I was disappointed to read a recent article on TFA that misrepresented my experience with the organization.
My decision to join TFA shaped the adult I am today. It placed me in a community-based school on the South Side of Chicago and opened my eyes to the unacceptable injustices facing kids who are growing up mere miles from Evanston. It replaced the numbers in stats about educational inequity in our city with names and faces of kids I will never forget. It taught me how to work in close partnership with fellow educators, parents and community leaders to make sure our kids had all the resources and support they needed to be successful. Together, we empowered our students to not only make substantial academic gains but also significant personal and emotional growth that will serve them well in school and beyond.
It is for these kids and their families that I feel compelled to share my own experience with TFA. First, the training TFA corps members receive is more extensive than the article suggests. Summer training is only the beginning – the jumping off point for a research-based, heavily experiential two-year continuum of training, support and development.
For example, each corps member is assigned a coach who regularly observes lessons and offers constructive feedback on all aspects of leading a classroom, from lesson planning to voice inflection. Corps members also attend required after-hours and weekend training and development sessions. Additionally, corps members engage in training around diversity, equity and inclusiveness to help them teach in ways that affirm and empower all of their students’ identities. And they do all of this in conjunction with the support all beginning teachers receive from veteran teachers in the building. When I was a corps member, I had a mentor teacher who had been at my school for years. Every week, she’d sit down with me to help me plan my lessons – just like more experienced teachers had done for her. Her partnership was instrumental to the progress my students made.
The writer also takes issue with the fact that TFA’s stated objective is broader than teacher development. But the organization’s focus on leadership development is both intentional and two-fold. First, we believe that the principles of great leadership and great teaching are one and the same (for more on this, you can check out the Teaching as Leadership model that informs TFA’s training).
Second, because educational injustice manifests in the classroom but didn’t start there, TFA believes that we need leaders working across all sectors to level the playing field for students in low-income communities. Our philosophy has never been that simply pumping more teachers into the system will fix the problem. Rather, it is that witnessing firsthand both the potential of students in low-income communities and the systemic barriers they face on the way to fulfilling it that will create lifelong advocates for kids and families in poverty. Many of our corps members advocate for their kids as career teachers, principals or school administrators. In fact, two-thirds of our corps members continue to work in the field of education, and teaching is the most common profession among our alumni. I constantly find inspiration from the paths that my own friends from the corps have taken to advocate for their students. Many remain in the classroom, while others have found that their skills translate to other sectors from which they can fight poverty, such as law or the non-profit world. Wherever they go, corps members take their students’ struggles and stories with them.
It’s for exactly this reason that, after I finished my corps commitment, I became a recruiter for TFA. While working with my preschoolers in Chicago, I recognized both that it’s possible to make a substantial impact in a child’s life over the course of an academic year and that, unless more of us choose to make that impact, we won’t see sustained change. When I compared that need to the paths my friends and classmates chose after Northwestern, I saw a misalignment. Too many bright, talented, passionate people are not going into teaching because the profession does not command the respect it deserves. I knew if I could recruit more of these individuals to commit to teaching, my kids’ lives would change for the better.
TFA is not a perfect organization, and it is both important and necessary to discuss where we are falling short and how we can get better. But to argue that TFA is not a worthwhile organization is misguided. I know how many talented, passionate students attend NU and want to make a meaningful impact after they leave Evanston. And I know that those who decide to begin their fight against injustice with TFA will have an incredible opportunity to do just that.
Amie Ninh, Medill '12
Recruitment Manager, Teach For America