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A Career in Social Impact: 7 Transferable Skills Gained While Leading a Classroom

While making a difference in students’ lives, teaching can also help fuel a career at a nonprofit or social-impact venture.

Teach For America: Skills Learned to Help You in Your Nonprofit Career

March 6, 2024

At Teach For America, we know it takes leaders working in all sectors to change the inequitable systems that prevent all children from receiving a high-quality education. After working as teachers, our corps members go on to many different careers, continuing to impact children’s lives from any number of industries. In this series, we explore the skills corps members gain from the classroom that help them succeed and deepen their impact as they pursue a variety of careers.

Teach For America corps members often go on to work for nonprofit organizations and other social-impact ventures where they can continue the impactful work for which they are passionate. The nonprofit sector offers distinct challenges and opportunities, and TFA teachers develop a toolkit of transferable skills to excel in this career field.

Managing and Inspiring Others

Corps members develop lesson plans and prepare their students for future exams, while also encouraging students’ social and emotional growth and supporting them in achieving both short- and long-term success. Because of their experience in front of a classroom and their ability to step back and see the bigger picture, Teach For America alumni are comfortable managing groups and setting the tone to accomplish shared goals and facilitate active discussion.

Neil Coffee, a 1993 TFA Baltimore alum, currently works as a chief technology officer. During his tenure as a teacher, he realized that he could help see the bigger picture for himself and for others. "It helped me learn how to take an amorphous goal—such as educating students—and figure out all of the steps I need to take to accomplish that goal," he says. Nonprofits and other social ventures rely on individuals with strong leadership skills to inspire and motivate those who dedicate their time to a cause.

Engaging a Wide Audience

To be successful, teachers must be strong and effective public speakers who are clear, direct, energetic, enthusiastic, and creative. They must learn how to channel those attributes into classroom instruction and keep students focused.

“I feel like my teaching skills are some of my most transferable skills. Number one is being able to facilitate a conversation with 25 other people,” says Mariana Aguilar, a 2012 Teach For America Los Angeles alum. Socially conscious companies and organizations need individuals who can quickly develop effective presentations when requesting funding and donations or to engage new stakeholders and invest them in their causes. The ability to engage a room is a challenging task, although learning how to synthesize information and speak to a classroom of students enables TFA corps members to continue to do so in even larger rooms with more people.

Mariana now works as a consultant at Deloitte. "I have the opportunity to do social impact work as the co-lead for the Inclusion Council for the Los Angeles office," she says. Her social impact work includes leading conversations and speaking on current issues to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Working Across Lines of Difference

TFA corps members teach in classrooms throughout the country, each one with many different cultures and personalities. Teachers develop an acute understanding for diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. Students from different backgrounds join in the shared learning environment. The teacher leads the way in authentically connecting with people from different backgrounds, working across lines of differences, and modeling a real desire to learn.

David Castillo, a 2014 TFA Milwaukee alum, works for Milwaukee’s Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement. He shares, “I now seek to understand people, especially those that work with children of color and use this understanding to find entry points for building their capacity around this work.” David develops culturally responsive curricula with proven academic gains for traditionally underrepresented students.

Understanding Systematic Issues

By educating others, TFA teachers develop a keen sense of empathy through the lens of social justice. Corps members work in low-income communities and experience firsthand the systematic inequalities that students face and the realities in which children live, both in and out of school. Teachers witness income inequity, poverty, and many other systemic problems that inhibit children from reaching their potential; any nonprofit organization that tackles these issues will value individuals with this level of hands-on experience.  

Alumna Charli Cooksey, St. Louis ’09, was inspired to change the low graduation rates in her school district. She explains, “When I saw my students’ unlimited potential and realized that their progress is being stunted by our broken system, I knew I had to commit to fighting for them.” TFA alumni are exceptional candidates for nonprofit work, which often centers around complex social issues and underrepresented populations. 

Design a Career that Fits Your Values

Whether you’re just starting out in your career or considering a change, this Career Values Workbook will help identify the values that are unique to shaping and guiding the career you want.

Grit and Determination

For TFA corps members, there is no task too small and no challenge too big, from supplying tissue boxes to raising the reading level of an entire class. Being resilient is essential for any educator.

Dan Carroll, a 2009 TFA Colorado alum and co-founder of his own education technology company called Clover, recalls, “If you can teach a group of rowdy 8th graders, you can stand in front of any group or audience and present. The grit I developed at TFA made it easier to push through the hard times as a founder."

During his time teaching, he had to persevere through a challenging classroom environment in order to accomplish his goals of helping his students. People working in nonprofits and social impact companies similarly have to face specific, unique challenges that require grit and resilience to accomplish their everyday tasks and drive toward long-term goals. 

Networking to Build a Team

Nonprofits and other socially conscious ventures need optimistic, hard-working people with experience in tackling big issues and confronting systemic inequities. Corps members can rely on the TFA network of alumni for future team building and career opportunities.

Many alums partner with one another to create their own nonprofit organizations or social-impact startups, knowing their fellow TFA members share their passion and hands-on experience. "We currently have about 10 TFA alumni on staff, so we recruit from the network," Carroll says.

TFA members learn how to navigate a network of potential resources and professional expertise to expand their career opportunities. Jacob Allen and Marie Dandee, who met as 2013 TFA Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana corps members, co-founded PilotED, a nonprofit featuring a curriculum that immerses students in sociological identity, academic excellence, and civic engagement; they were featured on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list of social entrepreneurs.

A dedicated team of positive, passionate professionals is the backbone of a successful nonprofit organization or social-impact venture. Teachers develop a team-based perspective, utilizing multiple resources that are all essential for students to excel in their environment.

Carroll reflects on his time teaching in Colorado: "I never felt like I was alone. My placement school was full of friendly TFA alumni—including my principal—who were always there to help me out." His team members helped him support his students, similar to the way those working for social impact organizations rely on one another to further their missions. 

Doing a Lot With a Little

Nonprofits and social impact startups tend to operate with tight budgets. TFA corps members are no strangers to these sorts of professional environments. Not every school has equal access to computers, updated textbooks, and supplies, so teachers need to be adaptable and flexible—qualities that are desirable in the nonprofit field.

TFA corps members learn how to be creative and resourceful while on a budget. Jamie Bernstein, a 2013 New York alum, shares, “Being a teacher taught me that no matter the time constraints or lack of resources, I could get anything completed.”

Fueled by their passion and resourcefulness, TFA corps members strive to ensure that their students have what they need to learn and thrive at school. Most teachers dip into their own pockets sometimes to provide supplies for their classrooms, in addition to using other approaches, like couponing, sharing with their peer teachers, and fundraising through online platforms, in addition to building strong teaching techniques and indelible relationships with students, regardless of the resources at hand. 

For anyone seeking a career in social impact that deals in any way with education, poverty, income inequity, children’s welfare, and any related issues, TFA provides invaluable experiences that will shape and inform corps members’ careers and help them be successful in the nonprofit world or at a social-impact venture. Whether a recent graduate or an accomplished professional looking to make a greater impact on your community, if this sounds like you, will find a great opportunity through Teach For America. See if the corps is for you!


This story was originally published in 2020. The date at the top of this page reflects when it was most recently updated.

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