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Why I Joined Teach For America as a Professional

Four Teach for America alumni explain why they made the career change to join Teach for America and how their prior work experience helped them thrive in the classroom and beyond.

By The TFA Editorial Team

November 16, 2018

From Finance to Education Policy

Kaitlin Anderson (Mississippi Delta Region 12)
Fellow in the Department of Education Reform and a Research Assistant in the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas

Before joining the corps, I worked in corporate finance, and while I enjoyed many aspects of my day-to-day work, I felt like something was missing. Two of my best friends from college had joined TFA, and I was compelled by their stories and proud of the work they were doing. Ultimately, it came down to knowing that I wanted a career where I could promote equitable communities, and working in education, and with TFA in particular, seemed like an ideal way to do so.

My corps experience was exciting, humbling, intense, and challenging. It was significant. I joined the Mississippi Delta Region in 2012 and taught high school math in a small town in rural Arkansas. I felt so privileged to be in a place that really valued community, and where teachers, leaders, and staff in the school were very supportive of us.

My professional experience most likely made me more confident as a classroom leader than I would have been otherwise. My background in finance, accounting, and economics gave me a tangible way to connect math to important real-life skills (like budgeting), but it also provided a way to teach students about potential career opportunities that require math.

After the corps, I earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I was able to conduct real research that was relevant for school leaders, educators, policymakers, and community stakeholders in Arkansas. After completing my Ph.D., I accepted a post-doctoral research associate position at Michigan State University, in a new, exciting research center called the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC). There, I get to continue my work, conducting what we refer to as Research with Consequence, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Education.

Looking to Pay It Forward

Connor Nowalk (D.C. Region 11)
Data and Strategy Manager at The Literacy Lab

I never intended to become a teacher, but I got hooked while I was working as a Literacy Lab tutor.  The Literacy Lab is a full-time AmeriCorps program now, but at the time, I was tutoring students in the evening at DC General Family Shelter after working at an advertising company during the day.  It didn't take long for me to realize which line I work I was more passionate about. When one of my students left the shelter with his family, I couldn’t stop thinking about the progress he could’ve made had we had more time together. Ashley Johnson (D.C. 06), the co-founder of The Literacy Lab, encouraged me to become a teacher and to apply to TFA, and she helped me through the application process.

My previous work definitely enhanced my teaching experience in a few important ways. First, the unique circumstances of working in a shelter gave me the opportunity to get to know and closely interact with my students’ families. This helped to underscore the vital role that collaborating with families plays in educating children. Secondly, having explored a few other fields, I entered teaching without any doubt that it was exactly where I wanted to be. This confidence helped to pull me through the challenging times.

After my corps years, I moved to Kansas City, taught for several more years, and started an ed tech company before making my way back to my role now as the Data and Strategy Manager with The Literacy Lab. Our work at The Literacy Lab supports students and teachers by providing crucial one-on-one tutoring to struggling readers, but I have also taken on the task of helping our AmeriCorps tutors matriculate into teaching careers to pay forward the help I received when I was in a similar position. I also co-founded a scholarship for undocumented students, the Pell Project, which I help run in my spare time.

Helping Others Meant More Than a Successful Tech Career

Eileen Sandoc Yen (Bay Area 13) 
Director of Operations at San Jose State University

I left behind my successful tech career because I realized that I gained more joy, meaning, and fulfillment from my volunteer role as an after-school teacher. I also recognized that, while my middle school students showed significant growth in my class, I could nurture many more students if I dedicated myself to teaching full time. However, I’d spent 20 years in a different career, so I felt compelled to make up for lost time, and traditional pathways into education wouldn’t get me into a classroom fast enough. With its deep resources and intensive training, TFA became the perfect catalyst to support my transition into teaching.

My coaches, instructors, and colleagues were incredibly supportive of my career change, encouraging me as I leveraged transferable skills into my teaching. After all, marketing professionals are resourceful, creative types who ensure that key messages get across to their target audiences. Also, teachers must become masters at managing multiple projects and objectives, while facing tight deadlines with limited resources, but I already had 20 years of experience doing that in my tech career—just in a different environment with a different mission. Both TFA and my previous work history prepared me with rich resources so that I could push past the inevitable rookie struggles and focus on my students.

While I hoped to continue teaching long after my corps commitment was complete, I left the classroom after three years and joined the Athletics Department at San Jose State University as director of operations, to work with the student-athletes and coaches in the Spartan Golf program. Before TFA, I wouldn’t have considered taking on such a role. However, my work in the TFA corps broadened my perspective on higher education, and I now recognize that for some students, colleges like SJSU are more accessible, and athletics scholarships are a valuable resource in making college more affordable for working families. When I was a classroom teacher, I inspired my students to strive towards college, and now that I’m at SJSU, I aid the coaches in recruiting student-athletes and support our student-athletes in their push through college to graduation and beyond.

Looking to Join an Educational Movement

Kimberly Taylor (Memphis 15)
Assistant Principal & Assistant School Director at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle

I joined the corps because when I came back from teaching abroad, school reform was in full swing in Memphis. The educational landscape, politically and socially, was totally different from the one that I had been born, raised, and initiated into teaching in. I knew that the best way for me to connect with the people who would shape the future of education in Memphis would be to connect with Teach For America. I also believed that an organization led by young people was my best shot at finding the like-minded rabble-rousers I thought that the educational movement in Memphis needed.

My corps experience was just right for me. I wasnt a new teacher, but I definitely had some learning to do. I had a clear understanding of my trajectory for developing my instructional leadership, but being a CM and taking opportunities that grew out of corps membership, like connecting with GLSEN and joining the Social Justice and Aspiring School Leaders Fellowship, allowed me to develop my leadership skill and helped me prepare for managing teacher teams and supporting parent organizations.

I am still at my placement school, but Ive moved out of the classroom. Being a member of the corps has made me uniquely qualified to provide support to corps members who come into my school to teach. Being a first-year teacher can be challenging and not all the supports that TFA and my school supplies fill in all the gaps that first years feel. I know that empathy and vulnerability about my own experience go a long way to fill in those spaces. The bravery that it takes to be vulnerable and credible I attribute to my mother, but the experience to know how and when to share those experiences and use them to motivate someone to keep going for the sake of themselves and the vision of One Day is definitely a skill that TFA helped me develop.

Learn more about joining Teach For America as a working professional looking to switch careers.