From Classroom to Courtroom, These Lawyers Remain Education Change Agents
A trio of Teach For America alumni share how teaching shaped their perspectives and the way they continue to impact education as attorneys today.
September 2, 2015
At first glance, John Bales, Justin Henry, and Christine Florick Nishimura are your everyday lawyers. They check into the office, look over their casefiles, and aim to obtain the best possible outcomes for their clients.
But what the naked eye can’t see is that each of them possesses a well-sculpted lens toward social justice, especially regarding educational equity and the opportunity gap. You see, Bales (Colorado ’10), Henry (Los Angeles ’05), and Nishimura (Los Angeles ’06) all witnessed these things firsthand as Teach For America teachers.
From the classroom to the courtroom, this trio of dynamic alums shared their respective experiences as TFA corps members, how their time as teachers shaped their perspectives, and the way they continue to make an impact on education as attorneys today.
Q: Where did you teach and where do you practice law today?
I was a 2010 Colorado corps member, and I taught high school math in Denver at Venture Prep. Today, I'm a public finance attorney in Denver at Kutak Rock, where I work with school districts, charter schools, and other institutions in higher education among other groups.
I was a 2005 L.A. corps member and taught seventh grade math at Pio Pico Middle School. Currently, I’m an in-house attorney at a corporation in Dallas.
Christine Florick Nishimura:
I’m a 2006 Los Angeles corps member; I taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade at Aspire Public Schools. I’m currently a special education attorney in Austin, Texas, representing children who qualify for special education but aren’t getting appropriate services.
Q: What made you initially think about joining Teach For America?
I did my undergrad and M.B.A. in four years at the University of Denver, and at the time, I actually had already finished law school at Notre Dame, passed the Colorado State Bar, and clerked in a criminal court for a year. Also, I had a lot of scholarships, so I wasn't in a lot of debt coming out of law school.
I had a few legal job offers, but something was missing. I really wanted to be able to have a direct impact on students' lives, even though it potentially meant giving up years advancing my legal career. So many people had helped me with my life, and I just had this need to give back. Teach For America was the perfect way to do that, as far as the opportunity and the training and mentorship I'd be receiving to make me a successful teacher. If anything, it didn't hurt my career in the long run; it gave me an even stronger perspective with my approach to law later on regarding education.
I grew up in Arlington, Texas, and like many minorities' experiences, the initial transition from high school to college was tough. I went to the University of Texas, and I'm asking myself, "Why was I doing well in high school, and now I'm taking remedial college courses in math and science?" I'm taking the first level of calculus, and kids from other parts of Texas were taking the third level of calculus. I was an engineering major. That's when I first started questioning the quality of the education I received.
Eventually, I did fine, but it sparked a shift in my mind set. I got involved on campus with debates about the 10 percent rule and the type of situation a kid from a rural or inner-city school faces coming into college compared to someone from an affluent area. Then while I was a junior and senior, I was working for a state senator from my area, Royce West. One of the members of the legislative staff with regard to education, Regan Gruber (Houston '99), was a TFA alum. She saw I was passionate about education, and she told me about the program, and it was exactly what I wanted to do.
I'm originally from Camarillo, which is in Southern California near L.A. I come from a family of teachers, namely my grandma and my aunt, so when I was at the University of Michigan for undergrad, I actually had looked into other teaching programs. But I was also really interested in politics and policy, and the bigger picture. Teach for America had a huge presence on my college campus. To be honest, it probably only took the first session I attended to feel committed to the mission, which was improving education for all students. I also knew it was a great opportunity, being a 20- or 21-year-old, to experience the classroom and be able to stay there long-term, or take that experience and help improve the system outside of it.
Q: What do you remember most from your time in the classroom?
I loved it, from the lesson-planning, to the relationship building, to seeing kids grow academically. One thing we were able to do was make significant gains in the classroom. According to the Colorado Growth Model, our class had the No. 1 high school math growth in the whole state, exceeding the state median by 35 percent. That was great, but ultimately, I was worried about the type of lasting impact I would make on my students.
Years later, Eric, a former student of mine, reached out to me. He told me that after my class, he later dropped out and fell two years behind, but he got it together, returned to school, and did well enough to graduate. It was humbling to hear that he would use a lot of methods we worked on together in my math class, and how his situation inspired him to start an informal mentoring program to help other kids in danger of dropping out. He taught me what transformational change means and reminded me that as teachers, we can make a difference in children's lives, even if the results may not always be readily visible. We still keep in contact today. In fact, Eric's now serving our country in the Marines, and he just sent me a letter the other day from boot camp.
We created a leadership class that identified an issue in our school that they felt needed to be addressed. Our school was located in an area that had a very diverse school population, and many students were focused on the differences rather than their similarities.
The students decided to set a goal to raise money so that the grade level could visit the Holocaust museum in Los Angeles. They held car washes and various fundraisers. Ultimately, they raised the money. Leading up to the field trip, we had discussions and lessons around the Holocaust and the danger of focusing on the differences between one another. Upon visiting the museum, they were able to appreciate firsthand the importance of empathy and treating each other with respect. To me, this was our biggest accomplishment because it represents the empowerment that we tried to establish in our classroom culture.
I still stay in contact with a good number of my students primarily through social media, so it's a pleasure to watch them grow into adults and follow their various paths. They were incredibly impactful in my life and I hope it was mutual.
Institute was challenging because of the hours, but I enjoyed the lesson-planning. I enjoyed creating worksheets and preparing to teach my students. It was, I think, not until I actually got to my school when the real challenge, obviously, came into play.
But I really loved being in the classroom. I enjoyed my students. I actually had the privilege of staying with my students for three years, so I taught them in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. Also, I’m a die-hard Michigan fan, and my students knew I was in the band. They were very much Michigan fans by the time they left me. They actually just graduated high school this past June.
Q: Why did you end up getting into the legal field?
Like I said earlier, I went to law school before TFA. As far as my background, I grew up in a low-income household with an abusive father, so I was always interested in child advocacy. So when I went to Notre Dame for law school, I thought about doing Child Interest Law, especially as far as issues involving neglect.
I decided to go to law school because I recognized that some issues that negatively impact our kids started at the policy level—specifically, when I looked at the disconnect between the policy requirements for special needs students and the actual support that they receiving from the school districts, mostly due to lack of funding and resources. Then when I was a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked with the ACLU on school-to-prison topics.
At the end of the day, my students would go home to challenges that were beyond my control—challenges that influence their educational outcomes. For me, I realized I could best help as many students as I could by affecting the rules that are implemented at a district level, at a state level, and at a national level, to try to make that impact happen. Not for just my 30 students, but for all students.
So I went to law school at the University of Texas in Austin and did Public Interest Law. There, I was fortunate to be connected to a few other Teach for America alumni, who were also in law school at the time. We got to help start and implement a restorative justice program at a local middle school in the Austin area. I reached out to clinics that did juvenile justice work—family court for children who were involved in protective services.
I was lucky enough to get awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, and my project was specifically geared towards improving reading services for minority Special Education students who were at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. And here I am.
Q: Are there any skills you learned from the classroom that you use today in your current role as a lawyer?
I've never done anything harder than Teach For America. When I think about how much hard work is required at a law firm, it can get busy but I always feel calm and collected. There's not much that can surprise you as an attorney or anything I feel like I can't handle, because being in the classroom, you prepare for the unknown constantly.
And when you have to speak in front of other people, other students, or other adults as a teacher, that comes into play as far as feeling comfortable with conversations with clients and other attorneys. You also learn how to deal with multiple tasks at once. Whether you're writing lesson plans or a curriculum, while speaking to parents and maintaining relationships, and doing everything else a teacher does, being able to balance so many things at one time and maintain your sanity is another skill is something that can carry over to the legal field or any job.
The fact that I have taught now gives me a strong sense of humility for our teachers and the complexity of their jobs. In regard to specific skills, teachers are required to be incredibly organized, relentlessly work to improve their performance, constantly problem-solve, and remain flexible. These are all very hard skills that are critical to any profession.
Yes. In my current work, on a day-to-day basis, I review student records. I review their reading assessment scores. I review their evaluations, their behavior contracts, behavior plans. I sit in meetings with teachers and principals, Special Education directors, and I'm able to not only understand the Special Education lingo that is thrown out during these meetings, but to be able to have a conversation with teachers. I think it helps that they know I’ve been in their situation. We can then work together to figure out what's going to be the best outcome or plan for a particular student. And I think it helps to build some trust in what can usually be a very emotional and contentious situation.
Q: How did your TFA experience shape the way you view the world, and how does the message of One Day still hold meaning for the work you do now?
I do public financing for school districts, charter schools, nonprofits, and low-income housing for Kutak, so what I did at Teach For America is directly relevant with what I'm doing today. I still get to work with a lot of the schools I came into contact with as a teacher. For a while, I was with the Charter School Growth Fund as well. So even though I'm no longer in the classroom, I'm still doing my part to have an impact on education where I live. I love what I do.
Although I practice corporate law now, I constantly find ways to engage with education issues. This includes working with our local school district, on committees, with the Board of Trustees and other engaged citizens. We collectively work to provide more opportunities to our kids in Dallas. I've also stayed actively engaged in mentoring students and community organizing.
In this moment, I'll continue to practice law while spending my time outside of the office deeply engaged in educational issues such as school board policy. Ultimately, I envision myself returning to education full-time but that will require the right role and the right time in my life. But I miss it.
I've always made sure that I never lost track of who I was doing this for. When I was in law school, I started realizing there was an overrepresentation of students who qualified for Special Education in those systems. About a third of all students in the juvenile justice system qualify for Special Education, even though they only make up about 12 to 13 percent nationwide. I’m proud to still be making an impact on education and being an advocate for this population of kids.