Big challenge, big reward

Imagine stepping into a classroom knowing that half of the students staring up at you would never graduate from high school. Each fall, Teach For America (TFA) corps members face challenges like this in low-income communities all over the nation.

While Congress talks education legislation, TFA teachers are the foot soldiers in the fight to end our nation’s greatest injustice: education inequality.

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Teach For America is a non-profit organization that places college graduates in low-income communities to work as teachers for two years. Both recent graduates and those who have been out of college for a period of time can apply for TFA. Corps members are selected through an extensive application process and are taught how to be effective teachers during the five-week Summer Institute.

According to Steve de Man, a Rio Grande Valley corps alum and Director of Alumni Affairs for the D.C. region, TFA teachers are chosen not only for their academic achievement and leadership positions, but also for their belief that education inequality can be overcome.

“The No. 1 thing we look for in potential TFA teachers is that they truly believe that all students have the opportunity to learn,” said de Man. “Their attitude needs to be: ‘I don’t care what zip code you’re from, what race you are … I expect you to learn at high levels because I know that you can.’ ”

After their training, TFA teachers are placed into schools in one of 35 low-income urban or rural areas across the states. From D.C. to the Mississippi Delta, Greater Boston to Hawaii, TFA teachers are employed by schools that are often passed over by traditionally trained teachers.

According to TFA’s website, www.teachforamerica.org, two out of three principals who work with corps members claim that TFA teachers are better trained than other beginning teachers.

The number of TFA applicants has risen in the past few years, but de Man is confident that this has little to do with the economic situation. “I don’t think that recent graduates are trying to avoid the ‘real world’ by applying for TFA,” he said. Or at least if they are, they’re in for a surprise. “Teaching in a low-income community is about as ‘real world’ as it gets.”

Eleven percent of Georgetown’s graduating class applied last year before the economy took a downturn. High numbers like this are typical of Georgetown (de Man’s alma mater) and other competitive schools around the country. According to its website, this year the organization received a record 35,000 applications. The 2009 corps is comprised of 4,100 members from 550 schools around the country.

D.C. corps member Brian Alexander turned down job offers after his 2007 graduation. The Dayton, Ohio, native and former student body president of Miami University had interned in Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) office one summer, and knew he wanted to come back to the city.

“I knew I wanted to live in D.C. and I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “But I studied political science in school. When I found out about Teach For America, I decided that the Hill would always be there and I needed to take this opportunity to make a difference while I could.”

As he gears up for his second year of teaching, Alexander reflects on some of his proudest moments thus far.

“One of my students was really disruptive and uninterested in the beginning of the year,” he recalls. “Through me reaching out to him, his parents, his special education and other teachers, he got a B-plus and became one of my best students by the last quarter.”

In his current job for TFA, de Man has seen his efforts in Roma, Texas, come full circle. While teaching eighth-graders U.S. history, de Man worked with the school district, teachers and parents to organize a trip for the students to the nation’s capital.

The students explored D.C. and took a tour of Georgetown University. When they returned home with their souvenirs, a girl at the local high school took an interest in Georgetown and decided to apply. The first student from the school district to ever apply to Georgetown, she was accepted and received a full scholarship. De Man visits with her regularly, and the D.C. trip is now an annual event.

“People count my kids out and say they can’t do it, but they can. They absolutely can,” he said.

Although many TFA alumni choose to continue teaching after their two years are through, TFA expects their alums to be lifelong advocates for education equality regardless of their new occupation. There are over 1,000 TFA alums living in the D.C. area, and they are still working toward the goal of ending education inequality. According to de Man, the gap is closing, but we’re not there yet.

“Put it this way: Imagine if every member of Congress had spent two years teaching in a low-income community,” said de Man. “The language of this issue would be so much different.”