Finding My Career Calling Through Teach For America
After working at a nonprofit, I realized a career in education would allow me to address inequities earlier and combine my passions for social justice and the arts.
January 9, 2019
I call it my career clarity moment. It was on December 9th, 2012, while having coffee with my best friend on our way to a Hanukkah party that, after years of searching, I found my career calling.
At the time, I was living in New York City, working as a program coordinator at a nonprofit serving homeless New Yorkers, and dancing with a modern dance company. I knew I was making a difference at my job, but I also knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term. Ever since graduating from Vassar College in 2009, I had been searching for the best way I could make a positive impact in the world as a professional. I liked the nonprofit work I was doing, but something inside of me still didn’t feel quite fulfilled. I wanted a deeper, more direct connection to seeing the world change, but changing careers felt daunting.
When my best friend pushed me to articulate what was on my mind in that coffee shop–when I finally said the words that I wanted to be an educator–it felt like the secret dream that had circled around in my head became a real possibility. In that moment, this wild idea to become a teacher brought everything together for me. I realized that a career in education would fulfill my passions and utilize my skills in a holistic, authentic way. I realized that I had to become an educator because I wanted to be an agent of change earlier on in the lives of those I served.
I saw families who had struggled with homelessness for years and individuals suddenly battling homelessness alongside the other traumas they carried. What they shared was being trapped inside systems of inequity and injustice. I hoped that, by becoming a teacher, I could help prevent people from ever falling into these painful, difficult situations I saw facing so many of our clients in New York City. This awareness, combined with my passion for social justice, the potential for integrating creativity, performance, and the arts into the classroom, and the primary role of interpersonal relationship-building in teaching made it so that becoming an educator was the right path for me. Soon after finding and expressing this vision, I found Teach For America—an organization with an inspiring commitment to centering education in the pursuit of social change. That was how I would actualize my dream.
As a TFA corps member, I was profoundly lucky to begin my teaching career in a vibrant, close-knit school community in the South Bronx of New York City. Between my wise, intuitive supervisor at my school and my responsive, knowledgeable TFA coach, my warm, helpful colleagues, and my skilled graduate school professors, I felt supported and positively pushed in my new journey. During those first two years teaching dynamic and curious first graders, I was utterly consumed with authentically learning what it means to be a teacher in every way that role demands. I learned that being a teacher meant unconditionally loving my students, no matter the mistakes they made.
I learned about seeking out creative ways of capturing my students’ attention and positively channeling their energy—from spontaneously singing directions mid lesson to experiencing shared uninhibited joy in moving to Just Dance videos during frigid indoor recess days. I learned about the depth of relationships a teacher builds with families and about the beautiful partnership that grows from a shared investment and vision in a young person. And I learned about the more emotionally trying parts of being a teacher, the moments that no one teaches you about in graduate school but that stay with you forever, etched in your heart.
I learned about supporting kids and families through deep, heart-wrenching losses—about the power of not only being there at unexpected funerals for fathers and uncles but being there the next day at school to ensure that child’s classroom remains a place of stability, love, and consistency amidst the unpredictability and trauma of the outside world. In those two years as a TFA corps member and new teacher, I learned the extent to which being an educator extends beyond the lessons taught inside a classroom to the family-like connections you build with children, families, and a broader community. It was through those experiences that teaching became my professional home, the classroom my second room, and my students like family.
When I decided to move to California, I knew I needed to find another school equally committed to family engagement, parent partnership, social-emotional learning, and the mission-driven focus of working relentlessly to close the opportunity gap. While visiting Rocketship, I met my current principal, Danny Etcheverry. We immediately clicked and discovered countless connections, the most important of which was a shared passion for educating the whole child. In choosing Rocketship, and specifically Rocketship Mosaic, I chose a place that invests deeply and thoroughly in kids, families, and communities, while also boosting its teachers’ practices through coaching, professional development, and a constant self-reflective effort to improve, on both an individual and organizational level. (I should also mention that a giant draw to Rocketship—or perhaps what sealed the deal for me—was the fact that each morning begins with a school-wide “launch” that includes an all-school choreographed dance to a pop song. What could be a better way to start every morning?)
In my three years at Rocketship, I’ve found the coaching model to be instrumental in elevating my instructional practices and deepening my content knowledge. In weekly meetings, I have the opportunity to collaborate with my coach to review student work, analyze student data, or strategize how best to teach new content in upcoming units. I’ve gained expertise in my content area, humanities, while continuing to devote time and energy to the social-emotional development of my Rocketeers, which is crucial to their academic and personal success and happiness. I’ve been able to take my strengths in connecting with kids and families from my prior teaching experience and combine it with a deeper knowledge of how best to address misconceptions, embed high-level questioning in my lessons, and provide actionable and consistent feedback to my students. As a result, I can confidently say that my time at Rocketship has made me a stronger teacher.
“I realized that a career in education would fulfill my passions and utilize my skills in a holistic, authentic way.”
As for keeping my interest in social justice at the forefront of my teaching, my transition from first grade humanities to fifth grade humanities has truly actualized my dream of not only doing social justice work through striving to repair educational inequities for my majority low-income students, but also teaching social justice to our future leaders on a daily basis. I am thankful to my principal for having the vision that I could and should teach older kids, which I wouldn’t have realized myself.
Now in my third year at Rocketship and in my second year teaching our oldest Rocketeers, I am able to push my students to think critically about injustices, inequities, and what it means to be an advocate for oneself and one’s community. We delve into these social justice issues through novels like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Esperanza Rising, and The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, all of which spark thought-provoking discussions and encourage my students to consider their role in creating the world we all want to see. During daily community meetings, my students engage in dialogues around what it means to be a leader on campus, how to develop one’s own voice in order to be heard, and how to work through interpersonal conflict in productive, peaceful ways.
It was during one of those community meetings that Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, visited my classroom earlier this fall. When she walked in, she saw a large circle of fifth graders deeply engaged in discussion co-led by a teacher, who, just a few years after finding her calling and switching careers, was confident in her own ability to lead and in her identity as an educator.
When I reflect on my journey to this moment—riding on a bus full of eager fifth graders on our way to a week-long science camp—it’s hard to remember what it felt like to not be an educator. Now, being a teacher is not just a job, but my identity and purpose. Even on my most tired days, I wake up ready to embrace a classroom and a school full of incredible young people learning to claim their space in the world. Each and every day, as I teach them, they teach me.
So when I think back to that long ago moment in that New York coffee shop—in those days before shaping, cultivating, and nurturing young minds and hearts was my daily focus—I remember wondering: Could this be what I’ve been looking for?
Five years later, I say unequivocally: yes. And I say thank you to my 2012 self for choosing this career, for propelling me to this moment, and for making me a teacher.
Rebecca Ain (New York '13) is a graduate of Vassar College, a Teach For America alum, and currently teaches at Rocketship Mosaic Elementary in San Jose, California. Outside of school, Rebecca enjoys dancing, yoga, and playing with her puppy, Casper.
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