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? 

Pass the Chalk

For Kadeem Gill (NYC ’11), teaching is personal. When he was growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he was confronted every day with the ways in which school systems had failed his younger brother, who had an individualized education program (IEP) for behavioral and emotional challenges, and the community at large. Gill eventually left New York to attend Princeton University, but during his sophomore year, the unthinkable happened: his older brother was killed.

“I had no idea how to put myself back together,” Gill says, adding that his way of coping with the loss was to give back to others. He started volunteering as a dance instructor in the Princeton community and decided to apply to Teach For America. In 2011, he officially launched his teaching career in the Bronx, just a few miles from his old stomping grounds in Bed Stuy.

cara mcclellan

It was the third time I had to stop because LeShawn was talking out of turn. “You owe me time,” I said, a shorthand that he knew meant he would be serving detention during gym class. Gym was one of his favorite classes, and I knew he was upset. I watched his reaction to make sure he did not show his feelings inappropriately. Instead he just shook his head and looked down. Although he was known around the building as a troublemaker, he usually did well in my class, and I could tell he was embarrassed that he had gotten in trouble.

As I started lining the class up for gym and reminded him he was staying for detention, I heard him mumble, “Man, I wish I had a real black teacher. Black teachers don’t give detention.”

This week thousands of educators from across the country have gathered in Dallas for the Teacher Leadership Development (TLD) Summit. Among the many lively discussions include sessions dedicated to Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and how it impacts our students. Please join @OneDayAllKids for a Twitter chat tonight, Wednesday, January 28, from 8:00 to 9:00 pm ET to learn more about CRT. Follow #CRTchat to join the conversation. Below Dr. Adrienne Dixson, TFA alum (GNO '91), staff member, and associate professor of critical race theory and education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examines Culturally Relevant Pedagogy through the lens of recent events.

The tragic deaths of Black men and boys over the last several months in Ferguson, Missouri (Michael Brown), Staten Island, NY (Eric Garner), Cleveland, OH (Tamir Rice), and Dayton, OH (John Crawford), have brought into stark relief the challenges we face as a nation as it relates to not only men and boys of color, but also communities of color writ large, particularly communities of color that are under-resourced and politically under-represented.

This week thousands of educators from across the country have gathered in Dallas for the Teacher Leadership Development (TLD) Summit. Among the many lively discussions include sessions dedicated to Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and how it impacts our students. Please join @OneDayAllKids for a Twitter chat on Wednesday, January 28, from 8:00 to 9:00 pm ET to learn more about CRT. Follow #CRTchat to join the conversation.

21 years old. I was scared to death. I had no idea what I was doing.

And when I received my school placement I was terrified: 6th grade. Henderson Elementary School.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. But not in Englewood.

At the time, what I knew about Englewood was limited to the negative media coverage I’d seen. Someone always seemed to be getting shot, robbed or arrested for drugs. 

Dirty broken desks, engraved with expletives were piled in the center of my room. Raggedy textbooks stacked along the wall. An American flag hung in the corner.

I couldn't breathe.

I stepped back into the hall and looked at my roster. 33 kids. All subjects.

My heart ached. I had to be better and do better.

But my room was a disaster and I didn't have any books.

I went to my principal and he calmly replied, "I don't care what you do with them, just don't send them down here."

It turns out having no curricular resources coupled with full autonomy from my principal was the best thing that could have ever happen to us. After meeting my students, I began to see that what they needed could not be found in a textbook or curriculum. At the time, I didn't know anything about culturally responsive teaching (CRT).

I was simply learning from and about my kids, and trying to give them experiences that would lift them up (validate, affirm), enlighten them (empower, transform) and expose them to the possibilities that existed outside of Englewood. I believe that education is the great equalizer and key to social mobility. I quickly recognized my kids didn't know who they truly were or from where they came, so they didn't understand how great they could be.

Dante Roldan

Dante Roldan is a 2009 Oklahoma alumnus.

August 3rd, 1967: the day that my father emigrated from Mexico to the United States. With no knowledge of the English language, he came from a home that could barely make ends meet. He attended one of the worst high schools in Kansas City and had a 1.2 GPA after his freshman year. His path was looking troubled until Mr. Haskell entered his life. Mr. Haskell tutored my father for three years in high school and helped him apply to colleges. The odds were against my father, but Mr. Haskell helped him overcome them.

This remarkable story was still fresh in my mind as I applied to Teach For America. Prior to joining TFA, I was working as a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley in New York City. I really struggled with leaving a profession that I had assumed was the perfect start to my career in the business world. But the hope to change a student’s life in the same way Mr. Haskell undeniably shaped my father’s life and my future was my reason to join.

I taught Algebra II and Geometry in a high school in Tulsa, OK with the most Hispanic students in the district. The majority of my students were four to seven grade levels behind a school that faced the reality of graduating only 50% of its students. By the end of my first year, more Algebra II students had passed the Oklahoma End-Of-Instruction exam than ever before. By the end of my second year, my Geometry students had also accomplished this feat.

Natalia Chabebe

Before joining Teach For America, I earned a bachelor’s degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in mechanical engineering with high honors, and accepted a position working at Hamilton Sundstrand as a mechanical design engineer. Here I worked designing, manufacturing, and testing space hardware for the next generation space vehicle that NASA is building for future space exploration.

While working full-time as an engineer, I also obtained a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. These experiences allowed me to follow my passion, but they also drove home how rare it is to be a young Latina in engineering, and how necessary it is for there to be more diversity in the STEM fields; this led me to apply to TFA. I am currently in my third year of teaching high school physics.

There are few role models that look like me in the STEM fields, and so I took it upon myself to change that. I thought that being a teacher in a very strong STEM subject would allow me to open the door to many young women and minorities who maybe do not know about engineering or science careers, or who might not think that they are capable of pursuing these kinds of careers. It is imperative that we have more diverse individuals leading the way in STEM fields, to give not only themselves a voice, but also to speak on behalf of their communities.

Danielle Neves

Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them. –Dr. Kevin Maxwell

I often wonder why it is that we can't get this right. We have evidence of classrooms and schools where children are achieving at high levels, accelerating achievement far beyond 10 months of annual growth, and eliminating the achievement gap. We've had examples of these classrooms and schools for years. And yet, we continue to struggle in our urban and rural school districts to bring this transformation to bear at scale.

I know, intellectually, that there is no silver bullet, no easy button or panacea that will magically transform our districts, schools, and classrooms. There are no shortage of strategies that could be applied. And in every district I've worked in, in every district I've observed, these strategies are being tried. I believe deeply that we can get this done. And I have ideas about how to transform individual classrooms and individual schools. I'm confident that I can be part of the solution at the district level. But I'm not sure yet how to get there. And I need help.

Enter the School Systems Leaders Fellowship, a yearlong leadership development program from Teach For America to prepare more alumni to take on roles in school systems leadership. This year, I joined the second cohort of the Fellowship and entered my current role as executive director of curriculum and instruction with Tulsa Public Schools. While I bring skills and expertise from my previous experiences (including founding and leading Sankofa Academy in Oakland, CA), I know that I also need to continue strengthening my leadership, strategy, management, and political muscles through the Fellowship as I take on new challenges.

David Scott Faris, TFA video producer and alum (South Dakota '08)

I am nearly five years removed from my time as a South Dakota teacher, but there are remnants of that experience that persist no matter how much time passes. A major one is my tendency to wax nostalgic around the holiday season, which is, let’s face it, the most opportune point in the year for deep personal reflection (also: festive cookies). December invariably brings memories of chaotic holiday assemblies and my students’ mounting excitement for winter break. I think I’ll always feel that undercurrent of nervous anticipation, like an emotional phantom limb.

These same memories also trigger insistent pangs of guilt, the consequence of having left my classroom after two short years. I often worry I am one of the educational dilettantes TFA’s critics cite when they decry the brevity of our commitment; as a result, the notion of “commitment” has been on my mind lately. For all that has remained consistent about my take on my teaching experience, my understanding of the commitment I made when I joined Teach For America has changed considerably. Those winter breaks I’d interpreted as finish lines for my involvement in education have revealed themselves over time to be starting blocks. Teach For America, as it turns out, is a lifelong commitment to education, whether you realize it or not.


About Us

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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