A 2015 TFA corps member, Peter Simonse is currently vice president and treasurer of Land O’Lakes Inc., and will be leaving the company this year to teach high school physics in the Twin Cities.

When I graduated from college, I established three life goals: First, I wanted to marry and raise a family. Second, I wanted to have a rewarding career at companies that positively contribute to society. And third, I wanted to give something back to the community.

At this stage in my life, I am happy with the success I have made with respect to the first two goals. I've had a successful marriage and our four children are happy, healthy, and independent now. I have enjoyed and excelled in my career as a business professional. Yet I am still not satisfied with the progress on my third life goal.

Pass the Chalk

We can’t breathe

when we think of Martin Luther King and what he did to change the world

when we think of young folks getting killed for no reason

when we think of people who tried to help the world.

-excerpt of “We Can’t Breathe” by Astarea J. Wright, 6th grader at Learn 8 Middle School in Chicago, IL

When Chicago middle schooler Astarea J. Wright thinks about Martin Luther King, she thinks about a man who “tried to change the world.”  More than 50 years after King’s march on Washington, protests in Birmingham, and peaceful fight for justice and civil rights, his words still ring loud and clear for young people like Astarea.

Supported by her teacher, TFA alumna Alyson Makstein, Astarea recently wrote the above poem, “We Can’t Breathe,” as part of the Poet Warriors Project, a program that introduces poetry to middle school students across the country as a means of positive expression. Astarea, who has lived in Chicago her whole life, describes her neighborhood as “not a good place for children…with a lot of shooting, fighting, and drama.”

School, on the other hand, is a refuge. Astarea says, “The best thing about school is learning new things with your friends.” She decided to include Dr. King in her poem because of his efforts to end segregation, and because “it’s important for students to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., so they can try to be like him and change the world.”

A 2015 TFA corps member, Jacob Burdette will begin teaching secondary math in Eastern Kentucky in fall 2015.

Growing up in an economically-distressed Appalachian community, I did not have access to many of the resources that were readily available to my affluent counterparts across the country. There were no computers in my elementary and middle schools, no pre-professional programs in my high school, and there was little belief in my community that my classmates and I would have a successful future.

Despite all of the barriers I faced, there was one person who never stopped believing in me and who, in turn, helped me believe in myself. That person, to whom I owe an incalculable debt, is Benu Nanda, my high school chemistry teacher. Benu consistently treated me with respect and pushed me to better myself. 

When I think about why I want to Teach For America, I'm reminded of a conversation Benu and I had when I was struggling in chemistry. She pulled me aside after class and told me that I could do so much better than I was doing. I responded that I did not have the resources I needed in order to improve. Benu looked me in the eye and said, "Someone will always have more money than you, more access to technology, to resources; none of that means you should give up.”

The Friday Five is Teach For America's weekly roundup of education news, stories, and links that made us think. 

Bill Gates is hoping to make standard history lessons a thing of the past. The tech mogul has partnered up with an educator to promote a more holistic approach to teaching the subject.

"The dog ate my homework" is no more. Students can now submit homework with their smartphones via Google’s new Classroom app which debuted this week. The app promises to make organization easier for both students and teachers.

In 2004, Kimani Maruge was 84 when he entered first grade to begin his primary school education. Eleven years later, Google honored the world’s oldest first grader with a charming doodle.

Jasmine Sanders

Vivian Malone Jones: As a small child, I remember that name parting the lips of nearly everyone around me at least once a year. Heralded as a legend in our hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and a symbol of bold resilience to the millions around the world who witnessed her first steps on the University of Alabama’s campus, Vivian Malone Jones was the first African-American graduate in the university’s then-134 year history. Her entrance into the University prompted George Wallace’s infamous and unforgettable “stand in the schoolhouse door” opposition in 1963. 

Despite adamant national and local resistance, Vivian Malone Jones remained resolute in her attainment of an equal and excellent education. While this event predated even the thought of my existence, I remember always being particularly inspired by the level of fearlessness Vivian embodied.

During my junior year of high school, Vivian was set to be the keynote speaker at a local university to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education decision. This was my chance—and I begged my parents to take me to the event with hope of meeting her face to face. I ran—more like power walked—into the auditorium, with my parents lagging behind. I became more inspired after hearing her speech and, after the event, was insistent on waiting through the crowds of people hoping to speak with Vivian. I was finally up: I introduced myself, letting her know that I was also from Mobile and that I was forever indebted to her for blazing a path for women of color like myself. Without hesitation, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down her phone number with a simple “call me.” 

Chante Chambers

It was the summer of 1999, and I had just completed my sophomore year in high school. I was interning on Capitol Hill. Up until this point, I had buried myself in books and learning, but I honestly didn’t know much about the professional working world or the hustle and bustle of politics. As a 15 year old, somewhat sheltered teenager, I embarked on what I thought would be a 12-week stint of sorting mail for a big-name senator.

However, at an intern induction meeting, we were encouraged to seek council and support by finding a mentor or advisor on staff who would help make the experience more meaningful. Mentorship was a new concept to me, and as a reserved introvert currently questioning how I landed such a prestigious internship in which all of the other interns were savvy college students, I didn’t prioritize identifying a mentor. I just wanted to survive and do good work.

After a week or two, I was approached by a petite, spirited, assertive woman named Diane. She decided that she was not going to wait for me to seek out a mentor. Instead, she appointed herself as my internship mentor, and this was a critical day that impacted the rest of my life. Though I was initially intimidated, I was also completely in awe of Diane and her story. She had risen to be one of the most successful and powerful people I had ever met—all while raising two sons and financing her education. Additionally, as a Black woman in a predominantly white male-dominated field, she had achieved great professional success and was respected. Yet, she was authentic, quirky, bold, and an image of the type of person I wanted to become.

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.

Pass the Chalk

Nationwide, demand for great educators is as high as ever. Millions of students growing up in poverty lack the quality education that will allow them to succeed. Teach For America is committed to recruiting as many leaders as possible to provide an excellent education to children in low-income areas—but we need your help.

Here are four quick ways you can help us recruit the next generation of teachers:

One of the hot topics this week in Cosmpolitan was Teach For America! Our Executive Vice President of Recruitment Elissa Kim details what qualities the organization values in corps members for the magazine’s weekly Interview Insider series. 

Follow the lives of some social media saavy principals who gave Education Week a peek into their worlds by tweeting and Instagraming photos with the hashtag #APrincipalsDay.

New research has found that reading to young children nurtures a love of reading that persists as they move into more independent stages of life.

Standardized testing is not the only way to assess student learning. NPR explores possible alternatives.

Only 11% of low-income, first generation college students graduate within six years. The Atlantic profiles the challenges that make attaining a college degree an elusive feat. 

Check out the five TFA stories that got us talking this week. 

Paul Pyrz

Leadership is about pursuing your passion, doing so with integrity, and getting over yourself. Leading is not about you. It is about helping others reach their passions, talents, and best selves. That’s what teachers do. That is when teaching is at its best.

Teachers need to spend time “doing you” as best as you can. Explore your thoughts and share them regardless of how they will be received. We need more people that speak their minds and live authentic lives.

At LeaderShape, we believe change is possible by supporting those who lead with integrity and have a healthy disregard for the impossible. Originally established in 1986 to improve leadership on college campuses, today we host the LeaderShape Institute, six days of dialogue and self-discovery for its participants, and additional programs to cultivate our next generation of leaders.


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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The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed on Pass the Chalk are the responsibility of individual bloggers. Unless explicitly stated, blog posts do not represent the views of Teach For America as an organization. 

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