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How One TFA Alum Brings Safety and Perspective to the Classroom

As we prepare to head back to school, Brenda Hatley (New Jersey '05) discusses her corps member experience.
A photo of TFA alum, Brenda Hatley, outside and surrounded by some of her students

Growing up in a hardscrabble section of south Phoenix, TFA alum Brenda Hatley always regarded school as her safe space, a place where she could go for stability and comfort when life at home and on the streets felt rocky.

So she was dismayed when she started her commitment as a Teach For America corps member in Camden, New Jersey in 2005 and found that the elementary school where she was assigned was chaotic and unstable. The principal was being investigated for embezzlement and TV cameras surrounded the school and chased teachers from the parking lot to the door. Staff turnover was chronically high. 

“At first I was thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into?’” she said. “Why do these kids and families have to deal with this? But I quickly realized this was just a normal school year for them."

Those early experiences cemented in Brenda a determination to make sure her classroom was always an island of peace and stability, regardless of what was happening elsewhere.

“I just wanted my room to be a sanctuary for these six-year-olds.”

Brenda Hatley

New Jersey Corps Member 2005

Brenda attended the University of Southern California, so the East Coast was new to her. When she arrived, Camden was the murder capital of the U.S. Still, she and some TFA colleagues decided that if they were teaching in Camden, they should be living in Camden.

Though challenging in some ways, Brenda found the experience exhilarating. She felt immersed in a new culture. As a Mexican-American who had grown up surrounded by people of similar backgrounds, she was surprised to find that the Hispanic families and students in Camden were almost all Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The culture was very different from Mexican culture. The Spanish they spoke was almost like another language.

There was also a significant number of Muslim students in her school, and that was also a new experience for Brenda. “Being invited to someone’s house for Eid for the first time, I had never even heard the word,” she said. “How embarrassing that I was a college graduate and didn’t know what Eid was.”

When Brenda joined TFA, it wasn’t because she had harbored lifelong ambitions to be an educator. She was mired in student debt, and needed a job that would help ease the transition from college to working life. “TFA offered a wonderful package of moving you somewhere, providing housing, providing training, and guaranteeing a job,” she said.

It didn't take long, however, for teaching to enter her bloodstream.

“I absolutely fell in love with it. I just kept challenging myself each year and feeling like okay, I'm going to stop teaching when it stops being exciting. So here I am starting my 19th year. And it has never been dull.”

Brenda Hatley

New Jersey Corps Member 2005

Brenda stayed at her school in Camden for one year after her two-year TFA commitment ended. But she missed the West Coast, and longed to be closer to home. Through TFA connections she landed a teaching job at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, where she had attended college.

Like her Camden school, Camino Nuevo was populated almost exclusively by low-income students of color. Most of them were Central American immigrants. After three years there, Brenda married and moved to Seattle with her husband.

While waiting for her California teaching license to transfer to Washington, Brenda took a job at a high-end private school where most of the students came from wealthy families. It was a “mind-blowing” adjustment for her.

Brenda has three children of her own now, and the two oldest attend Lafayette Elementary, their neighborhood school, where she started teaching this year. The fact that it is not in a low-income area of Seattle has been a bit of struggle for Brenda to reconcile.

“I want my children to experience all that I saw growing up and what other kids around the country have to deal with. It's hard to do that because we're in such a bubble. You have to be conscious of teaching your kids at home what they're not going to see when they walk into a classroom full of white kids.”

Brenda Hatley

New Jersey Corps Member 2005

She copes with this by bearing in mind a lesson she learned in a professional development session years ago about windows and mirrors. “No matter where I teach now, I know that it's up to me to be a window into a different world, and a perspective my students aren’t getting anywhere else,” she said.