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.

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.

Cristian Lopez is a recent high school graduate from Canyon Springs High School in the Las Vegas Valley. His love for design, which started to truly bloom during high school thanks to the encouragement of his friends, family, and teachers, was born from tattoo and street art. This is the story of how Cristian, in collaboration with THE UT.LAB, took a step forward in the STEM field.

I grew up in Watts in Los Angeles, but about four years ago, when I was 14, my family moved to Las Vegas searching for a better future. When we arrived, I began attending school at Canyon Springs High School in Northern Las Vegas.

It was at Canyon Springs High School where I really began focusing on my passion for drawing and art. Drawing became an important aspect of my life and who I was as a person. I would spend hours each day drawing designs, doodling in class, and honing my talent.

By my senior year, my talent was also apparent to my teachers, and they would often find me sketching during class. Rather than discouraging me from drawing, they would find ways to integrate my passion into the classroom—from leveraging my skills in Trigonometry class to finding innovative ways for me to incorporate art into my English course.

December marked the 6th annual Big Ideas Fest (BIF), an experience that assembles a few hundred education stakeholders to experience an intense collaborative, design-centered approach to solving real-world education problems.

The theme at Big Ideas Fest 2014 was loosely “Education Innovation for a Small Planet,” inspired by Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. Lappe’s big idea is that we don’t lack resources, in fact there’s an abundance, but we haven’t figured out how to bring them together or distribute them. Lisa Petrides, founder ISKME (of which Big Ideas Fest is a project), noted, similarly, education is resource-rich, with many excellent teachers, lots of technology tools, and materials. But far too many learners don’t have the education they deserve.

Pass the Chalk

This holiday season, as you gather together with family and friends, please accept our sincere thanks for your commitment to our country’s children and educational equality. Please share this image and know that the joy it depicts is in part because of the tireless efforts of educators and supporters like you—those dedicated to helping all students reach their full potential.

Have a very happy holiday season, and we'll see you again in 2015!


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.

Peter Alvarez, attorney and TFA alum (Houston '06)

When the news broke earlier this year that an American journalist named James Foley had been killed, I paused. I felt my stomach turn from the heinousness of the act, not yet realizing that I knew James. I watched the news montages on this great man and journalist. He looked familiar, but he was in the media, so obviously I had seen his face, I thought. Then I saw John and Diane Foley speak about Jim's death, and the person they described seemed more familiar than ever. That day, I got an email from Terri Slater, the former assistant director of the University of Massachusetts Upward Bound program, in which I had been a student many years ago, with the subject line: "Jim Foley."  

In that instant, it clicked, all the connections were made. I knew before I opened the email. I wrote Terri back, expressed my disbelief, and explained what Jim had given me so many years ago.

In the summer of 2000, Jim Foley was my favorite teacher. I received an A in his class. He taught me history, government, and social studies like I had never been taught before. He infused our lives, beliefs, politics, sociology, and economics in a two-month, rigorous summer course. The class was interesting and interactive, but my fondest memory of Mr. Foley was not in the classroom.

Raegen T. Miller, VP for Research Partnerships

President Johnson and Congress fired the first salvo in the War on Poverty in 1964 with the Economic Opportunity Act and the better-known Food Stamp Act. Additional legislation escalated the war in the following year. The Social Security Amendments of 1965 brought us Medicare and Medicaid, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, or ESEA, took the fight to schools. As with its sibling programs, the idea of ESEA was to nip poverty in the bud, to break the vicious cycle by which poverty begets more poverty.

Now on the eve of ESEA’s golden jubilee, I want to share three ways that, in my opinion, a reauthorization of ESEA in 2015 could smartly honor the motivating idea of the original law. All three ways have to do with Title I, the flagship program of ESEA, which allocates federal funds to local education agencies (districts) serving concentrations of low-income children.

Erica Monrose

With each new school year, LGBT teachers struggle with the decision on whether to be open with co-workers and students about their sexuality. In a piece for the Atlantic, a Teach For America alum speaks to LGBT teachers about the different ways they deal with this issue. See the other stories that had us talking this week. 

Catherine Ordeman

Catherine Ordeman is a Teach For America corps member and an art teacher at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama. Last week, she launched We Are The Ones, a photography project in which nearly 200 students posed for Instagram portraits in front of a quote by Barack Obama. We caught up with Catherine earlier this week, and she told us about her inspiration behind the project and its impact on her students.

As teachers we are faced constantly with the issue of teaching our kids about the world, while also allowing them to form their own opinions. This issue is one I grapple with frequently in Art class: how do I teach my students to create without stifling their creativity?

In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, many of my students were confused about why so many of these deaths were happening in the North. As students in Montgomery, Alabama, they were under the impression that racism existed in isolation in the South. They learn about the Civil Rights Movement and hear all about why their state and city are so incredibly significant. In their eyes, it wasn't a northern problem; it wasn’t a national problem. I wanted to address all of these issues, but most importantly, I wanted to give my kids a chance to say what they were feeling and thinking—no matter what it was—and that's when I decided to launch We Are The Ones.


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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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