The Secret Life of a Teach for America Alum

In all my time as an education and play advocate I have often glazed over my teaching experience. I mention I'm a former teacher and leave it at that. Why am I so closeted about it? Come closer and I'll tell you the secret I've been keeping, but please promise not to tell. Pinky swear? OK. I'm a Teach For America alum. Not only that, I am also a former staff member. Shhh, keep it down! Don't gasp like that. Someone will hear you! Why have I kept quiet about this? Because mentioning it makes people squirm. They get shifty. They get a fake smile on their face. Sometimes they look at their feet, as if they need to make sure they are still attached to their legs. Sometimes they want to debate me about the good vs. bad of the organization, but regardless it's never an easy conversation. So I've avoided it until now.

Many educators don't like TFA. They think TFA teachers take over jobs held by veteran teachers and flaunt their success despite their lack of "proper" teacher training. They feel TFA isn't interested in creating teachers, but rather is looking to create an army of charter school founders, policy makers and corporate reformers that will align with its mission. Well, OK. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I'm not going to deflate those arguments today. That's for another column. Rather, I'm going to share my experience.

Before I keep going, I'd like to state that I know a thing or two about the teaching community. My mother is a veteran teacher. All her closest friends were teachers and, like most American kids, I was taught by teachers. Then I became a teacher. Then I started my site Let Children Play where I write about and work with teachers as an advocate for kids. Then I had three of my own kids and sent them to school where they were taught by teachers and I'm friends with teachers now! I understand the pain that is felt in the teaching community over the wave of new teachers, programs, and funding flooding the education community. It's not surprising that resentment is so rampant, but it saddens me to know that this resentment inhibits kids from getting the education they need for a world more innovative and competitive than any we have ever seen. Each day adults battle over the traditions of the teaching profession is one more day wasted, and when our kids can't successfully negotiate life's challenges they will resent us for being unable to see that their futures were more important than our disagreements.

These days I work as a play and education advocate and I have my time with Teach For America to thank for inspiring me to do this work. When I became a TFA teacher I never knew I couldn't succeed in the classroom. I was set up to believe, that despite the odds, I would. Neither failure nor mediocrity were options.

The experience taught resilience. It taught me flexibility. It taught me how to hold my ground with 21 wiggly kindergarteners. It taught me how to reach people I had nothing outwardly in common with. Instead I had to reach inside for the most intrinsic human experiences on which to build relationships. Most importantly I came to understand that our children are more important than anything else in the world and we must work with urgency to ensure their health and happiness. It is with this urgency now that I work each day as an advocate for children on Let Children Play.

I don't believe Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, ever set out to fix our education problems with teachers that would teach for two years. She knows this isn't a solution; it is only one step in educating young people on all that needs to be done to make lasting social change. Many TFA alums stay in the classroom. Many don't. Regardless I have never met a TFA teacher that was not profoundly altered by their experience. Whether they loved it or hated it, their eyes were opened, their mind engaged in a vision of how they believe our schools should be run. Whether they are critical of the movement or supportive doesn't matter. Kopp has achieved her goal of starting a new conversation, opening a new window through which young people pass, altered and alert to the problems we face as a nation. There is nothing that can take the place of that sort of encounter. They will go forth and take part actively in their society, working for the change they believe in.

We can save this generation of kids if we put aside our resentment and fear and begin to accept that never again will our schools look as they have for the past fifty years. Whether we like it or not, our culture is moving forward. The important thing is to find how we can contribute in a positive way to this change.