I looked for quite a while to find a quote on acceptance to fit this week’s Motivation Mondays post. When I saw this one, I realized it fit right in with something else I’ve been wanting to write about.
Accept what you can’t change–change what you can’t accept.
I have mentioned before that I came to my career as an educator through Teach for America. It’s an organization that has given me so much–a career I never thought I wanted, wonderful friends and colleagues, and a purpose and direction in my life. I wouldn’t have become an educator without TFA. My wife and I have both worked for them–summer training staff for both of us, full-time staff member as well for me. College started me on the path to where I am now, but TFA cemented the bricks into place on the road.
Teach for America has been taking a lot of criticism lately, both from outside groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and from members of its own alumni network. All of the criticism beats a familiar refrain: Not enough training. Supporting charters instead of public schools. Using it as a stepping stone. Teachers don’t stay. On and on and on.
When I listened to this story on NPR on my drive to work this morning, I knew I wanted to write something in response, even if here on my blog where no one likely reads it.
I can’t speak to everyone’s experience with Teach for America. Teachers are placed all over the country, and schools and districts across the nation vary widely when it comes to hiring and policy of all types, including in their work with TFA. What I do know is MY experience.
I joined Teach for America with very little idea of what to expect, just a vague idea of “making a difference.” Four days after my college graduation, my dad and I drove my beat-up Mazda 1200 miles to the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. I knew nothing about south Texas. I knew nothing about teaching. I knew very little Spanish.
A week of regional “induction” in the Rio Grande Valley introduced me to the people, culture and heritage of a part of the country I had previously known next to nothing about. I learned about its history as a borderland and about the colonias where many of my soon-to-be students lived. I spoke to teachers who were currently teaching with TFA in schools in the region–I heard about their struggles and their genuine love for their students. I was shocked and awed and inspired by what I learned and experienced. I became dedicated to this place that would become my home.
Then it was off to Houston for five weeks at Teach for America’s summer training institute. I taught remedial English Language Arts to 15 8th graders. I experienced my first classroom fight. I encountered students who seemed determined not to learn–until I realized they were actually desperate to pass on to high school, and terrified they wouldn’t, and holding back because of it. They had experienced too much failure before to trust me now.
I learned how to earn their trust. Just as I learned how to earn the trust of the 118 6th graders I had in my first class at Grulla Middle School. (Note: In 2004, no one in my regional corps was placed at a charter school. Today, my rough estimate is that maybe 1/3–possibly less–of Rio Grande Valley corps members are placed in charter schools. The majority work in traditional public schools.)
I was not a good teacher my first year. I was a slightly-better-but-still-not-very-good teacher my 2nd year. But I stayed.
I stayed. As did a huge percentage of my corps.
Ahem. At any rate, I began to slowly get better. You see, TFA’s training doesn’t end with the 5-week Institute in Houston. It continues over the two-year teaching commitment and, for the willing, can extend to your work as an alum. Every year I stayed, I got support, I got training.
And I got better.
I’m still in touch with many of the students I taught during my last couple of years in the Valley, the years when I feel like I really hit my stride as a teacher. Some of them are seniors–and the college acceptances are pouring in.
And though I’ve moved on, I’m still working in a school. I’m still trying to better the lives of low-income students. And I will always be their life-long advocate.
Accept what you can’t change.
Teach for America as an organization, from my perspective, is 1000% dedicated to its mission. It isn’t going to just “fold” and go away. It isn’t going to back down from its critics. It’s going to keep sending teachers where they are most needed. Some of them will leave after two years. Some of them will stay for a lifetime. Many will fall somewhere in between.
They will all go above and beyond for their students.
Critics of TFA need to realize they will achieve far more towards the common goal of educational equity in this country by working with Teach for America as it exists now, rather than railing against it from the outside–and from what I’ve seen, not taking much action to improve education on their own.
Change what you can’t accept.
I can’t accept that ZIP code determines your education prognosis in this country. Neither can TFA. And they are working to change that. They’re very willing to work with their critics to do it.
No organization I’ve ever been a part of takes feedback more seriously than Teach for America. They are making, and I’m sure will continue to make, changes in response to the criticism they’ve received.
One day, all children.
That’s the rallying cry for TFA staff, corps members and alumni–the first four words of TFA’s mission statement. Maybe it’s just that I’m a big picture person, but that vision is worth the work that Teach for America is doing now–and will continue to do in the future.
They–we–won’t accept defeat.