Rachel Carey

As a special educator, I am often told that I can speak in code: FBA, ARD, IEP, BIP, MDR, PLAAFP. If you understand these acronyms like your own last name, you are probably one of my people. As a young educator, I often felt overwhelmed trying to understand how my students with differences worked or thought “differently” than their general education peers. As I have learned and understood more, I can safely say that there is still so much about the human brain and a child’s ability to learn and understand that is not yet known. 

I’m glad that Teach For America recognizes that all students learn differently, something reflected in the organization’s recent name change from Special Education Initiative to the Diverse Learners Initiative. This new name reflects the initiative’s dual mission of helping strengthen and expand quality instruction for students who receive special education services, and to equip all educators with the mindsets and skills needed to embrace all learners.

Sara Needham Butler

On my first day as a special education paraprofessional, I was “assigned to” Thomas. Lucky for me, after a couple weeks of this weird lady following him around, he got used to me. He liked being able to whisper to me in class, and he could always tell me what he thought the answer was, even if he wasn’t called on. What student doesn’t like immediate feedback all day? No need to stand on his chair and yell anymore, or run down the hall because he got sent out of class. I won’t deny that Thomas was still often very disruptive in class, and unstructured times were his Achilles heel. We would frequently spend a lot of time in a small office completing work when he couldn’t be in class. There were definite highlights of my day, but there were also many lows. 

Oh the things you can find/If you don’t stay behind!/In the places I go there are things that I see/That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.

This quote has been hanging in my classroom for the past two years. To be honest, I just can’t put what I want my students to walk away from my classroom with any better than one of my personal quote kings, Dr. Seuss. I first found this quote when I was writing a vision for my classroom in my second year as a Teach for America corps member. Working as a high school special education teacher, I quickly realized after my first year of teaching that there is more to be taught than academic content in my classroom. Character counts—and that is a lesson that I continue to work towards teaching my students in my third year of teaching.

Craig Brandenburg

I like to do my grocery shopping on Saturday mornings for two reasons: less crowded aisles and, more importantly, samples around every corner. “Sure, I’d love to try that new salsa! What? A Dixie cup of red wine on a Saturday morning? Absolutely!”  

But this particular Saturday, I smelled sizzling hot dogs (most likely on a toothpick for easy consumption) near aisle nine. As I approached the station, the employee noticed I was wearing a Teach For America shirt (having worked at nine Houston Institutes, I have amassed quite a collection), and the floodgate of questions opened. I have fielded a ton of questions over the years, but the one I enjoy answering the most is not “Why did you become a teacher?” but “Why are you STILL a teacher?” 

Being on the cusp of finishing my 14th year in the classroom, I know this question demands an answer. I shared with the employee that I enjoy the challenge and the variety teaching presents me—every year, every day, and even every hour. By staying in the classroom, I have become a master of my craft. I have not only been able to create opportunities for students, but I have also been able to see them to fruition. Most recently, I have discovered an even more exciting reason that keeps me in the classroom: something I call Teaching for the Cycle.  

Elizabeth Terry

Mario, one of my students, loves to arrange furniture. He loves to build things and destroy things. He’s a hard worker when he wants to be. He’s cagey and doesn’t get close to people at first. He doesn’t like to be touched. He escalates quickly if triggered but is truthful and honest if he’s done something wrong. He’s funny and smart. He gets concepts quickly but gives up if the book or word problem is too long. He’s an entrepreneur and loves Legos.

Spending the last six months with Mario has taught me these things. These are his motivators, and using them (“we can rearrange my office when you finish all your math work!”) helps him learn. Yes, we use academic time to interior decorate, but guess what? He finishes the math work in record time. His classmates are still working, and he has mastered the concept. But, remember, he’s a puzzle. Some days this doesn’t work. Sometimes he won’t even talk to me. Sometimes he’s on the floor.

Molly France

In the Fall of 2008, a friend told me about an AmeriCorps team she was working with that allowed her to visit a neighborhood preschool twice a week and work with students during their first years in a classroom. I decided to tag along, and this AmeriCorps Week (March 9-13) I’ve been thinking about all the ways in which that visit has impacted my life.

Working with the Jumpstart program at The Catholic University of America and St. Anthony’s School in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. allowed me to see, first hand, the impact that deliberately teaching literacy and social-emotional skills can have on a child’s ability to interact with their classmates and to make decisions in the world around them. Research shows just how large of an impact these sorts of early interventions can have on a child’s long-term educational prospects, and thus, their lifelong achievement. The research also shows that maintaining a highly effective level of instruction is key to sustaining a child’s ability to excel in school and in life.

Brett Jenkins

Service is hardly a new concept to me. I grew up as an Army Brat and spent my childhood moving around the country and the world as my father was reassigned every two or three years. There was no expectation that my sisters or I continue the military tradition, only that we put service to our country and our families before ourselves.

As we mark AmeriCorps Week (March 9-13), I’ve been reflecting on my own continuum of service—from teaching in our country’s high-need schools to flying Blackhawks in support of our country’s ground forces. AmeriCorps has afforded me the distinct opportunity to grow personally and professionally, serve others, and pursue my passions. My story might follow a different path from others you’ve heard, but the overall leadership and service lessons are hardly unique.

Pamela Inbasekaran

At the age of five, I learned I wasn’t white. According to my kindergarten classmate in the little town of Midland, Michigan, I was black, and she couldn’t play with me because of it. For most people of color growing up in predominantly white communities, we come to realize our “otherness” quite early. With each visit to my parents’ birthplace of India—home to all my extended family—I would walk away feeling torn. I was embarrassed by the shame I felt about being different from my peers and by my lack of knowledge of my family’s culture.

By most standards, my professional life was going well. At one of the largest firms in the country, I was practicing law in New York City and doing well in my field. Yet I had a nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away and became stronger with each passing day. Something was missing. Was I truly serving others to my fullest potential?

Lori Halvorson

Like many graduating seniors, I was drawn to the idea of Teach For America and attended a few information sessions on campus. Ultimately, I decided to join the Peace Corps, which had always been my dream.

However, as my time in the Peace Corps progressed, I kept going back to Teach For America. The children in Burkina attended under-resourced, poorly staffed schools, so did children in the States. Children in Burkina were academically behind their peers of other nations, so were children in the States. Children in Burkina knew so little of the outside world and relied mainly on Jean Claude Van Damme movies to paint a picture of life in the U.S. Children in the States were presented limited, often-skewed representations of the outside world as well. I found myself thinking, “Burkina is one of the most impoverished, under-developed countries in the world. What is America’s excuse?” How were we not offering more to our children? 


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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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