Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix '98) traveled across the country this summer to speak to incoming corps members as they started their training. Here are her remarks.
July 18, 2018
I want to tell you about an elementary school classroom in Phoenix. The teacher is a first-year Teach For America corps member. She was a leader on her college campus and has certain ideas about the kind of teacher she wants to be and the ways she will impact her students. This teacher sat where you are today and had some of the same questions you may be having right now: What do I need to do to prepare? When will I know what grade and subject I will teach? Can I actually do this?
On the first day of school, all of this teacher’s questions and ideas met reality. Her classroom had 36 students and 30 desks. There were no books, and the students were meant to be learning in both English and Spanish. The school had no standardized curriculum. And very quickly, statistics and theories she had read and learned about became real kids and families, real challenges, and real hopes and dreams on the line.
That teacher was me. I’ve been the CEO of Teach For America for about three years, but I had the great privilege of joining this effort in the classroom with my students as a 1998 Phoenix corps member.
I will say, I had it far from together when I first joined Teach For America, but what inspired me from the moment I walked into my Houston institute was being part of a singular community that was all-in for students. All at once I felt the urgency and the possibility, and it’s inspiring to be in this room and feel the exact same spirit.
In my first few months in the corps, I had a lot of incredibly challenging days, early mornings, and late nights. And I did what I think most reasonable people would do in their first week of school—I cried on the way home every single day. I was so overwhelmed with the very clear challenges in front of me, and I feared deeply that I wouldn’t be good enough for my students. I was very aware of what was at stake.
But there were a few things that really got me through that first year of teaching and that are still anchoring points for me, and I want to share them with you.
The first is that I always remembered I was not alone. I really encourage you to never attempt to do this work alone. I personally surrounded myself with fellow corps members and veteran educators who could help me get past focusing just on the challenges and help me look at the opportunities that were right in front of me.
As I mentioned, I did not have enough desks for my kids, but I soon figured out that I didn’t have to have desks. I brought pillows and bean bags and created a completely different environment and seating arrangement for my kids. I made it cool not to sit at desks.
I didn’t have a curriculum or a scope and sequence for the year, but I had access to veteran educators who shared all of their great ideas. And I put something together that was going to deliver on the kind of education my kids deserved.
I didn’t have books, but I had libraries all around me. I quickly figured out that there were five near where I lived, and I could go check out 30 books at one time. All of a sudden I had a pretty cool rotating library.
The impossibilities became possible, and as I overcame challenges, I was able to start to get my feet under me. Surrounding yourself with the right people who are going to help you see the possibilities and bring out the best in you is one of the most important things that you can do as you get started in the corps.
The second thing that got me through was that I refused to lose hope in what my students were capable of achieving.
I believe what distinguishes the Teach For America community, our partners, and all those in this work who have the same vision we do—that one day, all children in this country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education—is that we have a radical belief in the potential of all children. We know that potential is distributed equally across all lines of difference, but the opportunity to meet that potential is not.
I never lost sight of that when I was teaching. I was unwilling to compromise on what my kids could achieve. And I remember that I hung on to that hope—especially when more experienced people told me that what I expected of my kids was unrealistic because of where they started their year in terms of their academics or because of their circumstances.
When I heard that, it only deepened my resolve. And 20 years after starting this work, that hope I had as a 22-year-old has been fortified into a deep certainty and conviction of what I know our kids are capable of—and it is unshakable.
Alongside that hope, the third thing that got me through was anchoring in the truth of what our students are up against.
“We know that this problem is solvable. That is not a question that we should be debating today. We see over and over again entire schools and school systems making incredible progress.”
We cannot ignore the truth that, on average, 50 percent of students growing up in low-income communities in our country will graduate from high school.
The truth that, on average, students growing up in low-income communities have a 9 percent chance of making it to and through college by the age of 24 compared to 80 percent of the most affluent students in this country.
The truth that our education system was designed over 100 years ago and was certainly not designed to teach the demographic that we have in our public schools today—50 percent children of color.
The truth that our children are up against systemic racism and oppression every single day of their lives.
And the truth that the last thing our children need is for teachers to feel sorry for them.
Instead, what they need is for you, their teachers, to have high expectations. They need you to build authentic relationships with them that will turn into a deep care and a deep love and that will cause you to knock down walls for them. They need you to seek out their assets and their brilliance and provide the kind of education that will lead to real agency and options in their lives.
So I encourage you to always keep the truth and the hope front and center, and to always do this work alongside the many others who are in this with you.
We know that this problem is solvable. That is not a question that we should be debating today. We see over and over again entire schools and school systems making incredible progress. Today there are schools that are preparing kids from low-income communities and kids of color to be college- and career-ready. They are sending students from low-income communities to and through college at a 50 percent rate compared to the national average of 9 percent. And while change can sometimes feel slow, we know that with persistence and partnership we will move the needle on this problem.
When I look around this room, I believe we will make progress faster because you have chosen to be a part of this. You are the leaders that our country needs right now, and I hope that you will cherish the community that you are a part of.
Look around you. Look at the diversity of this room. Very few organizations are able to bring folks together from every kitchen table in America. People of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, political views, abilities, and so much more—all united around a common mission and belief in children and what they deserve in life. All refusing to stop until we get there. And you are a part of a network that is now 60,000 strong, that has the same unwavering belief in kids, and that is on the same mission.
Changing our current reality will not be easy. Many will actually tell you that it is impossible. In those moments, hold on to the hope that our children will meet the highest expectations, and the truth that this is incredibly difficult and complex work that is actually the work of a lifetime. The hope of the courageous people throughout history who have come before you and whose footsteps you are walking in, and the truth that history is not just on your side—it is in your hands.