This past weekend, over 15,000 past, present and prospective Teach for America corps members met in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the organization's inception. Among us there were teachers, lawyers, doctors, CEOs, college professors, superintendents, chancellors, mayoral candidates, and principals, all with a unique story of how we got to joining TFA in the first place, and more unique still in the career paths we chose after our two-year commitment.
Nearly three years ago, as a 2011 Greater Philadelphia corps member, I sat in assembly with other teachers in at our alumni induction ceremony, an indication that we'd fulfilled the duties to which we committed two years before. Over drinks and appetizers, corps members excitedly chatted about the same, looming question of the evening: "What are you doing next year?"
I remember the pit in my stomach that evening, not because I was returning for a third year of teaching in Philly, but because I was disappointed that the question even needed to be asked and answered.
Now, in my fifth year working in a Philadelphia school, I am one of a handful of us who have stayed. Our numbers seem to align with the national trend: according to a study of TFA alumni, less than a third of corps members are still in the classroom after five years. These dismal numbers remain at the heart of the most substantial criticism of Teach for America: that while these young people might be bright and talented, they just don't stay very long at all.
My friends and colleagues who have remained in the classroom have become tremendous educators, many even becoming instructional coaches to new and returning corps members. They have taught multiple siblings in the same family, they are on a first-name basis with the mothers and fathers of their students, and their innovative ideas as third, fourth and fifth-year teachers (because now they actually have time to think, rather than to merely survive and try not to cry in front of their students) have improved the culture and the achievement of their schools. Most significantly, they are a familiar face and a stable force for their former students, who smile when they see their old teachers in the hallway, a luxury that those of us educated in suburbia take for granted.
Through a commitment that extended beyond just twenty-four months, they earned the trust and respect of a community who might have originally doubted their intentions. After all, what parent wouldn't learn to doubt, after having to hand their children, year after year, to a revolving door of twenty-two year-olds who are "taking a break" before med school or law school or a career in finance?
Despite what Teach for America might publicly pronounce about its first and second-year corps members, no teacher - not even the most enlightened, most dedicated, most celebrated - is an expert after two years. It isn't possible. But it is possible to grow into an expert in the years following the two-year commitment, and it's my belief that those years, the years beyond the time as a corps member, are the most valuable to student and school growth.
The choice to leave after two years is yet another privilege enjoyed by those of us who are not members of the communities we serve, yet another painful reminder of the inequity that plagues us. Corps members who stay past their two-year commitment are interrupting that inequity, at least on a small scale, by joining in solidarity with the school communities. They have changed the landscape of their schools simply by saying, "I'm still going to be here with you" and sticking by that promise.