Two weeks ago I had the honor of recognizing the 10 recipients of Teach For America’s first annual Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. More than 120 students, teachers, staff members, family, and guests gathered at the Hotel Intercontinental in New York to celebrate these exceptional educators and their contributions to our work. It was a moving ceremony, with tributes from students and even a video message from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognizing the accomplishments of our awardees.
Over 7,000 Teach For America alumni are teaching in classrooms across the country today. They are indispensable to fulfilling our mission—and our country’s aspiration—of a future where all children can have an excellent education.
Chosen from more than 600 nominees, the 10 award winners reflect a wide range of experiences and teach in diverse settings. What they have in common is outstanding leadership. They are willing to take risks in pursuit of life-changing impact. They are not content to see academic gains alone—they are determined that every student will walk out of their classrooms with the tools to be life long learners, passionate readers, and skilled problem solvers on a path to and through college. None of these teachers is satisfied with where they are now—they ask more of themselves even when they’re getting great results. Their drive to push boundaries has driven our movement forward.
The award recipients all received a $5,000 prize and a $4,000 professional development stipend, and were invited to participate in an ambassadorship that will give them more opportunities for professional growth and leadership. Laura Kretschmar (New Orleans ‘95), who’s been teaching for 16 years, said again and again that she felt like she’d just received an Academy Award—which is exactly how we hoped these extraordinary teachers would feel.
Yet too often even the most outstanding teachers go unrecognized and unsupported, and are left out of the broader education reform conversation. A report released last week by TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) found that the most effective teachers—whom they call “irreplaceables”—often leave the profession early in their careers because “they are ignored and undervalued at almost every turn.” Despite their success, schools make too little effort to support and retain them. Only 26% of these top teachers said that in the past year their principals had identified opportunities for teacher leadership roles for them. Exceptional teachers are hungry to take on more leadership responsibilities, and they are more likely to stay in the classroom when school districts open those pathways.
The longer we engage in this work at Teach For America, the more we understand that alumni who stay in the classroom are at the forefront of advancing our collective learning and understanding. They are the ones making breakthroughs in the classroom and testing and refining new approaches. They have the first-hand experience of whether a curriculum is working, how to strengthen a teacher evaluation system, and what policies would enable them to be at their best. At this critical moment in the national debate, we need their perspective and voices more than ever.
By 2015, Teach For America will have a robust community of nearly 13,000 alumni teachers. We've started the Teacher Leadership Initiative to support this growing group by providing partnerships and resources to help them continue developing as professionals, to enable them to impact education policy from the classroom, and to help ensure they gain recognition for their contributions.
Our day celebrating and learning form our 10 alumni award recipients left me inspired by their passion, humbled by for their dedication, and determined that we simply must find more ways to ensure that successful teachers are shaping the education debate.