Teach For America recruits and supports outstanding leaders to teach children from low-income backgrounds in order to break down economic, social, and racial barriers to opportunity. These leaders, true forces for social change, tell us about their experiences.

TEXT: ÁNGEL MARTOS       IMAGES: TEACH FOR AMERICA

“My desire to join Teach for America is strongly rooted in my past educational experiences. I attended a high school that was deeply divided by class and race. This experience in an educational community with such diversity led me to develop a deep interest in educational equity and, as a result, in teaching.” This quote is from Joel Thompson, a first-year Teach For America corps member. Teach For America operates in 51 regions around the United States to ensure that all children, regardless of their zip codes, have access to an excellent education. Thanks to the commitment Teach For America’s leaders make to improving education for all students, they manage to expand educational opportunities for their students, regardless of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Joel was lucky enough to be a part of a gifted and talented program at Garfield High School, a racially diverse public school in a historically black neighborhood of Seattle, Washington that consistently produce more National Merit Scholars every year than almost every other school in the city – public or private.

Unfortunately, beneath this remarkable diversity and academic performance were sharp educational inequities. Joel shared: “My honors high school classes were mainly made up of wealthy and white students, whose parents controlled the school and often favored their kids’ interests over the interests of less privileged students in general education classes. My school mirrored achievement gaps nationwide, as power inequities led students in my classes to excel while the less white and wealthy students in general education classes struggled in comparison. My interest in Teach For America started with a desire to fix the educational inequities I observed in high school and from which I personally benefited.”

Joel’s first-hand experience with inequities at his school based on race and class helped build his interest in providing equitable learning opportunities for all students, leading him to join Teach For America. He recently completed his first academic year teaching math and science at a school in Oakland, CA, a place with a large immigrant population.During his first few months in the classroom, Joel had eight students who were able to “leapfrog” two courses. “Many of my students began the year saying they didn’t like math and that they weren’t smart enough to excel at it. For some of these students, math is now their favorite subject.” One of these students is Ismael, who entered 7th grade below a kindergarten level in math. Ismael quickly advanced his math skills and recently “completed a difficult math worksheet ahead of time and was able to help another student with the new concept. I’ll never forget how excited he was when he said, ‘I like math!’ and asked for a high five.”

Being a Teach For America corps member is a tremendously rewarding experience, with corps members receiving unique opportunities to grow personally and professionally. This is explained by another corps member, Rebecca Reid: “Teach For America corps members have teaching instructors who come to observe them, offer opinions, and help with planning classes. If I had gone for a regular teaching job, I wouldn’t have had the support I needed during my first year in the classroom.” Rebecca goes on to say: “I’m still in touch with my literacy specialist. She has been an amazing mentor for me, helping me to connect with communitybased organizations and offering me other opportunities to further develop my skills.” This is the reason why, when teachers have completed the two years they commit to as Teach For America corps members, they become alumni who are still dedicated to eliminating educational inequity. The work can be challenging, but also a great learning opportunity.

The fact is that corps members face the enormous challenge of teaching in high-need communities. However, Teach For America corps members make an immediate impact, empowering students and positively impacting their lives. A growing body of external research points to the impact of Teach For America corps members. Recent Mathematica studies found that the students of Teach For America corps members achieve an additional 2.6 months of learning in mathematics and 1.3 months of learning in reading, when compared to students of non- Teach For America teachers in the same school.

Corps members’ first-hand experience with the challenges facing students in low-income communities propels them to become lifelong advocates for educational equity. Among the organization’s 54,000+ alumni, the majority continue to work in roles focused on expanding educational opportunity for low-income students. Teach For America’s alumni network includes teachers union leaders, elected officials, and school and district leaders. One of the reasons there is such diversity across their alumni network is because Teach For America offers fellowship programs designed to train future leaders in a range of different fields, but always with an underlying social interest and concern for educational equity and excellence. For example, each year the Capitol Hill Fellows Program places a group of alumni in fulltime, paid staff positions in the United States Congress. In other words, the program establishes a network of alumni that extends beyond their two years of teaching. The Teach For America experience makes a lasting impact on participants to prepare them for a lifetime of fighting for educational equity and excellence inside and outside of the classroom. With so many opportunities available after their corps commitment, it is clear that all of the program’s corps members and alumni have one thing in common which is expanding educational equity and excellence.

This is the case of Britanny LePage: “I wanted to become a corps member in order to offer opportunities to those students who need it the most. I always felt that, with Teach For America, I could make a difference in the lives of others, and impact students in the same way that my teachers had a lasting impact on me. My teachers enabled me to comprehend my potential and they provided me with a safe haven during my time in school.” Her expectations were exceeded by one of her students, De’Lennis, who was seen as a “troublemaker” that no one wanted in their classroom. After passing her class, he has become a positive leader among his peers.

28 years ago…

The belief that all children have great potential and should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, regardless of where they were born, is what led to the creation of this organization over 28 years ago. In the late 1980s, Wendy Kopp was a student at Princeton University and was moved to take action against the stark educational inequities that had been plaguing our nation for more than century. After organizing a conference at Princeton about improving the US education system, Wendy began to wonder why we weren’t channeling more young leaders’ energy into teaching. She ultimately wrote her undergraduate thesis on how to build a movement among the rising generation of leaders to channel their energy to teach in urban and rural public schools, knowing they could have an immediate impact in low-income communities, and Teach For America was founded a year later.

The first year, she recruited 500 teachers. The number of applicants progressively increased in spectacular fashion. Today, Teach For America’s network includes nearly 60,000 leaders who have confirmed that education can change lives. The goal is to directly impact student achievement in the short-term, while converting talented leaders into lifelong advocates committed to achieving educational excellence and equity in their lifetime. This mission has since extended beyond the United States. In 2007, Wendy Kopp co-founded Teach For All to export the model to all countries with educational injustices. Teach For All currently partners with organizations in 48 countries.

The belief that all children have great potential and should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, regardless of where they were born, is what led to the creation of this organization over 28 years ago

Fundación MAPFRE, with education

Aware of the importance of education for the next generation, Fundación MAPFRE actively continues to partner with Teach For America. Our partnership affects several schools in the United States by providing financial support. For example, at the Excel Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, the Fundación finances the training of those who will go on to teach children from low-income communities in the city of Boston. In addition, last April, MAPFRE’s USA CEO, Alfredo Castelo, invited the school’s students to his offices to spend the day experiencing a professional work environment. “They were able to ask questions about life after high school and learn more about different professional opportunities,” their teacher, Rebecca Reid, remarked. “Another mentor of mine once said ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ Students need to see people in positions of power who are similar to them and who share the same background. It’s much easier to pursue your dreams when you can imagine yourself in that role.”

Fundación MAPFRE is also involved with Frick Impact Academy in Oakland, CA and the Dayton Leadership Academy in Ohio.