I joined the staff of Teach For America nine years ago, and over that almost decade I’ve had the occasion to make a lot of mistakes and the opportunity to learn from them.  These learnings cover a wide array of topics and situations, from budgeting to public speaking to management, but when I reflect on where I’ve faced the greatest challenges and learned the most, the answer is clear:  I’ve had to think more about race, class, privilege, and my own personal identity in ways that I never had to before, and my very way of seeing and experiencing the world has shifted as a result.

Today, an article in the Denver Post reported that districts in Colorado aren’t enticed by Teach For America’s efforts  to recruit and support teachers of color. Though Teach For America-Colorado is not the sole solution to building a more diverse talent pipeline in high-needs schools, we were disheartened to see how this article misrepresented our strong partnerships with schools across the state, as well as our local impact and retention.

 

Photo credit: torbakhopper

A few months ago, as the weather warmed, a truth that the winter had been hiding was revealed. There is a woman at my church—I suspect she is unhoused or at least housing insecure. She takes the free meals offered and comes to church with what looks to be all of her belongings. The warmer weather meant that she wasn’t covered up in layers, and I confirmed what I thought I may have seen—she’s pregnant. Having just had a baby myself in the past year, seeing an unhoused pregnant woman was, in some ways, haunting. I thought about how difficult it is to be the mother of a newborn with the luxuries of health insurance, pre-natal care, a comfortable place to rest, security in my next meal, and every trinket and knick-knack. Then I thought about not only the challenges for this mom, but also for the newborn. The odds are already stacked against her.

A few days later, at a sandwich shop, I saw a family of four—a husband, wife, and their two kids. It was a school day at 9a.m., so I was curious why the kids, who looked to be around third- and fifth-graders, weren’t in school. Then I noticed what appeared to be many of their belongings piled on and around their table. It became clear: This family is unhoused. In this moment, school is likely low on their list of priorities. One of the greatest opportunities to expand their life options is one of the most compromised when faced with such physical insecurity. 

There’s no denying that there are differing opinions about “what works” in education. At times, the voices of teachers—the ones who most intimately deal with these complex issues—are lost in the mix. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with three State Teachers of the Year from across the country to pick their brains about teaching, continuous learning, and the state of American education today. An edited version of our conversation appears below.

Joshua Parker is a Compliance Specialist in the Office of Title I of Baltimore County Public Schools and adjunct professor at the Notre Dame of Maryland University. He is the 2012 Maryland State teacher of the year.

Luke Foley, the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Alternative Program at Northfield Middle High School in Northfield, Vermont. He uses a creative and experiential place-based curriculum to engage his students in their education, their school, and their community.

Jonathan Crossley, the 2014 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year, teaches English, oral communication, and drama at Palestine-Wheatley High School in Palestine, Arkansas. By using Socratic seminars, student-led questioning, and relationship-building, Jonathan led his students to the title of Most Improved for Literacy in the entire state of Arkansas (36% to 90% proficient or advanced). He is a Delta '10 TFA alum.

You’ve all had rich, exciting careers in the classroom. What are three things that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?

Joshua Parker:. Throughout teacher-preparation programs, most of what is emphasized is the content knowledge and pedagogy, but I find the soft skills and traits are what really make the difference between good and great. Brilliant lectures have died from the lips of apathetic teachers. Teacher-prep programs are great and necessary for being a teacher. But they are only the beginning of knowledge needed to become a great teacher. You need to be fueled from a desire within to research books and articles that are pertinent to your particular area. The knowledge you receive before you teach can’t match the knowledge you self-select after you start teaching.

(Photo credit: FutUndBeidl)

The first time I stepped in front of a class of 27 seventh graders—all at different levels, with varying needs and wildly diverse backgrounds and personalities—I knew this job was going to be anything but average. No matter how tired or stressed-out I was about making a particular lesson perfect, my students counted on me every single day to bring my “A game.” This meant figuring out on the fly how to teach mitosis when the light bulb on my projector burned out. Or hitching a ride to school from a tow truck driver after my car broke down so that I wouldn’t be late to my students’ first frog dissection. Or painstakingly figuring out exactly which student still needed help on which standard, unit after unit.

I still look back on my three years in the classroom as both the hardest and most rewarding years of my professional life. The skills I acquired—quick-wittedness, leadership, relentless prioritization—all set me up for success in my current role in the policy world. Yet, despite what current and former teachers know to be true about the demands of the job, data from a new Third Way poll of high-achieving undergraduate students shows that most Millennials have a very different, and somewhat alarming, perception of the teaching profession:

Zeke Berzoff-Cohen

Berzoff-Cohen and Intersection student leader Naomi Cornish speaking at Goucher College.

What would the movement for educational equity look like if it was led by our students? I wrestle with this question on a daily basis at The Intersection, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that teaches leadership, advocacy, and organizing skills to high school students. Founded three years ago with fellow Baltimore ’08 corps members Yasmene Mumby and Matt Stern, The Intersection aims to combat the collective sense of disempowerment among our students. Even for those steadfastly pursuing education as a means of personal and professional advancement, many of our students felt unable to address the structural barriers that kept their families in cycles of poverty and kept our city segregated. Digging into Baltimore’s history of white supremacy, we came to recognize that many people of color have come to feel civically disconnected due to years systemic discrimination in housing, police, education, and several other institutions. My co-founders and I knew that in order to address this cycle, our students needed to become leaders with the skills to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.

We believed then, as I believe now, that young people deserve a seat at the decision-making table. In the past three years, Intersection student leaders have registered hundreds of voters, built a community garden in a food desert, played a leading role in a coalition that passed the Maryland Dream Act, and recently embarked on a campaign to reduce gun violence through youth job creation.

I was fortunate enough to share the incredible work of my students at the recent Teach For All conference in Santiago, Chile. The conference brought together Teach For All staff, educators, social entrepreneurs, system leaders, and students from across the world to explore ways to accelerate alumni impact and systems change. During the conference, I was struck by the repeated emphasis on both deep-level community engagement and student leadership as key ingredients to solving educational inequity. 

Choi and Kamras.

I distinctly remember sitting at my desk in the midst of my Tuesday grad school class, reading a chapter on the importance of self-reflection as a teacher. While I felt strongly about the necessity for teachers to practice self-reflection, I found it incredibly difficult to do in practice. Between juggling the never-ending needs of students, lesson planning, parent phone calls, and trips to Target, there is often hardly a moment to dedicate to yourself as a teacher.

Perhaps this is why I seize every opportunity to learn from the self-reflections of other educators, school leaders, and others in the field. Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with Jason Kamras (DC-Metro ‘95), Chief of Human Capital for D.C. Public Schools and 2005 National Teacher of the Year, to reflect upon the lessons (and mistakes) learned from IMPACT, the fallacy of the poverty vs. teachers debate, and the power of the parent perspective.

You've now been at DCPS for 17 years—7 years [as human capital chief], 10 years [as a teacher]—of all the work that you have accomplished, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my time teaching 7th and 8th grade math at Sousa Middle School and the work that I did with my kids there. Despite all of the larger policy changes that we’ve been able to make, I would still view this as my greatest contribution thus far.

Inside the Ryman Auditorium. Photo credit: RecoilRick.

Last weekend was a great weekend. My husband and I celebrated his 40th birthday, and one of the things we did was attend a Nickel Creek concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And, surprisingly enough, it was at this concert that the why of our diversity work was further clarified for me.

After a really incredible—and yet in some ways challenging—few days spent participating in staff-wide diversity conversations, I had wondered to myself about the nature of this work. It is hard. The analogy I am most often reminded of is when I try to clean a room in my house: as I empty the drawers, pulling out items tucked and hidden away over the years, the room tends to look far messier before it gets clean. Often, in that moment of cleaning when I’m surrounded by clothes, middle school yearbooks, and random bills, I wonder, why am I even doing this? I must admit sometimes that is my tension as we tackle our diversity work, too.

But as I looked around in the Ryman on Friday night, I was reminded why our work of thinking about race, class, nationality, gender, privilege, and history has to be part of our work. Nickel Creek is an amazingly talented group, and Nashville is a diverse city. Yet in the Ryman’s 2,300+ person auditorium, I saw only a few other folks who weren’t white. As I sat there, I began realizing why this task of thinking and working honestly—to be not only anti-racist but fully appreciative and inclusive of diversity—is so important and so challenging. We tend to live in homogeneous silos, and our lives can so easily be separate experiences even in a city as diverse as Nashville.

Brakke on the day before her first day of teaching in 1999.

Dear Mr. Adcock & Mr. Ramey,

It is with a very heavy heart (and after a lot of long hours full of tears) that I am writing to you to resign as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Henderson Middle School.

I sent this letter on July 25th, 2001. The recipients were my superintendent and principal, both of whom were more gracious and kind to this new teacher—a newcomer in nearly every definition of the word—than I likely deserved. I know the exact date because I’ve kept a copy of this letter at hand for nearly thirteen years now, so that I can keep close to my head and my heart what I felt on that summer day. Sadness. Guilt. Commitment. Gratitude.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of teacher recruitment, but noted it was just part of the equation of ensuring that our public schools thrive and adapt to the needs of students today. Another part: keeping talented educators in classrooms and schools for the long term.

Admittedly, as you just read in my resignation letter, I’m speaking as someone who left the classroom after a few short years of teaching. For me, the reasons to leave were profoundly personal and likely right at the time—yet it is truthfully the decision I question most from my past. What would be different in my life today had I stayed? How would it have felt to see my eighth graders all the way through to high school graduation five days a week rather than flying in a few times a year for homecomings, short visits, and finally, justly, to watch them walk across the stage?

Rachel Brody

Rachel Brody with her cousin and friend Gabriella, who inspired her to become a teacher and partner with kids to value their own unique potential.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” 

- Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State University, best-selling author, and autistic activist

Good teachers are essential for all students to reach their full potential – including the 67 million people living with autism worldwide.  April’s Autism Awareness Month provides an opportunity for all of us – special educators, general educators, and everyone who believes that all students can achieve at high levels – to reflect on our knowledge, skills, and mindsets around working with the 1 in 68 children who have autism. 

How are we learning from, and with, our kids with learning differences?  How are we recognizing the unique potential in all of our learners?  How are we setting a high bar for all students?

In the below reflections, two Teach For America corps members share the unique realities, opportunities, and celebrations of working with students with autism.

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