In a recent op-ed in The Cougar, an author reached some puzzling conclusions about Teach For America. She spoke to the parent of a child who has grown significantly with the help of her TFA teacher and also to me, a TFA corps member who testified that the rigors of my training and the intense ongoing support I receive have prepared me for my job. Yet she ultimately discredits the work of TFA teachers and the effectiveness of the organization.
In making the blanket statement that TFA’s approach to strengthening public education is wrong, she sets aside the countless personal stories of students who will struggle to reach their full potential if the status quo remains the same. There are 16 million kids growing up in poverty in this country.
According to the last census, nearly a quarter of kids in Houston are among them. The academic odds for those kids are stark, as just 6 percent of children growing up in our lowest-income communities will graduate from college by the time they’re 25.
For that injustice to change, we need as many adults working on behalf of low-income kids and their families as possible. We need people who deeply believe in and will fight for the right of all kids to have access to equal opportunities and resources.
We need people who share the backgrounds and identities of students to teach so that kids can see themselves reflected in their role models and imagine what is possible for their own futures.
Teach For America builds a diverse pipeline of passionate individuals who are doing just that. In Houston, more than half of corps members identify as people of color, and nearly a quarter came from graduate school or professional backgrounds.
Together, we are exposing our students to new perspectives and leveraging our own experiences to help our kids embrace their identities and set ambitious goals for themselves.
Of course, we are fortunate to do all this alongside countless others advocating for our students and their families. We work in close partnership with the individuals and organizations who have been fighting for social justice long before we arrived, and we know that to honor and continue the progress those folks have made, we must tackle this work with all our hearts.
With this in mind, I’m working hard to make a difference — and I feel lucky to do so. When I am up late into the night crafting lesson plans and searching for resources for my students, this legacy is the reason why.
It’s why I consistently stay after school to offer extra help and get to know my students in a less formal setting. It’s why I ask for regular feedback on my teaching and why my TFA classroom coaches attend to every aspect of my teaching — from my lessons plans to tiny changes in the inflection of my voice that can make a world of difference.
Our kids deserve nothing less.
Most corps members stay in education well beyond the two years they commit up front, with some continuing on as teachers and others moving on to leadership and administrative roles. As they do, they work alongside alumni advocating for families in poverty in other, essential ways — by fighting for legal justice, expanding access to affordable healthcare, bolstering a community’s social services and so on.
TFA creates a pathway for all these driven, passionate people to fight for social justice in classrooms and commit to a lifetime of battling inequity. I think we can all see the right in that.
Alex Reyna is a 2014 UH alum. He currently teaches at Brookline Elementary School in Houston.