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When I joined Teach for America in the fall of 2000 after graduating cum laude from the University of California, Wendy Kopp, her co-founding colleagues, and the Teach for America corp had already been at it in classrooms across the United States for ten years. The mission to “provide an excellent education for kids in low income communities” was well underway, and the organization had reached a milestone by accepting its largest new teacher corps yet. There was a lot of buzz about the organization then, as there is now, and while all of it wasn’t positive, high achieving graduates were still committing two years of their lives to this cause at a surprising rate in order to be a part of the revolution.
I was no different. I knew when I graduated that I wanted to go into education, but I was also eager to make an impact. I felt such a passion for being an educator that I wanted to focus in the most meaningful way possible. Teach for America provided that perfect opportunity. Following the six-week training program, I was assigned to teach eighth grade Language Arts and Social Studies in Oakland, California. I had 42 students in my class the first day of school. Thirty-six of them were boys. Eight of them didn’t have chairs. My students were rowdy, and obnoxious. They showed up late and left early. I was entirely unprepared to face those children on that first day, but I knew that there wasn’t another teacher with a more open and devoted heart who would throw herself into ensuring that those students got the education they deserved.
During my first year in the classroom, my car was vandalized numerous times, I was physically attacked by one parent, and sued by another. But at the end of the year, I had more than half of my students on the honor roll, some of whom had never been anywhere close to it before. I had students coming to school every day whose previous years’ attendance records were so sparse they couldn’t even be located. I met some of the most interesting, intelligent, caring, and unique people I’ve ever met in my life in that classroom, and I am proud to say that they let me be their teacher.
I am aware that there are educators who do not support the TFA (Teach for America) program. But I don’t believe that it takes jobs away from experienced teachers, and I don’t believe that the program is just an opportunity for white kids to play the hero (I’m not white and I’ve never considered myself a hero.) I do believe that children, regardless of where they live or how much money their families earn, should be afforded similar educational opportunities. And, I do believe that sometimes the person who can provide that is not necessarily the one with the most classroom experience or educational accreditation. Because no amount of education or experience is going to help you prepare for the fact that you have a student you have to drive home every night because he’s afraid to walk, or one who you have to bring extra food for because you know he won’t be getting anything once he leaves school if you don’t.
When I entered the classroom as a largely untrained teacher, I turned out to be exactly what my students needed that year. They needed someone to listen. They needed someone to care. And they needed someone to believe. I am certain that my ability to provide them with what they needed at that time helped them achieve academic success they would not have accomplished otherwise.
But, Teach for America is just one part of a solution. It’s one method of battling the educational inequities American schools and the children they service are facing. We need many solutions. And, we need them to all work together.
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