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Why Teach For America Uniquely Prepared Me to Lead a School
Erin McCarty was born in Las Vegas and attended Clark County public schools. A UNLV graduate, she elected to join Teach For America in 2008 as a Las Vegas Valley corps member.
So it’s only natural that the next step in her career progression, after eight years as a teacher, was not a matter of where, but what.
“This fall, I’m going to be an assistant principal for the first time,” she shares. “And yes, the school is in Las Vegas. Where else would it be?”
McCarty sat down with us to talk about her move to school leadership and why she feels that her TFA experience has uniquely prepared her for the job.
It’s clear you love your hometown. What is it about Las Vegas that has made it impossible for you to leave?
Our state song is “Home Means Nevada.” When I say I work for the Clark County School District, I’m also a product of it. I take a lot of pride in that, but I also take a lot of pride in being a Teach For America–Las Vegas Valley alum, and those things go hand in hand.
In fact, I learned about Teach For America when I was working for Senator Harry Reid [of Nevada]. The legislative director, Jason Unger, was a TFA alum and told me about the organization and the mission. I was kind of surprised because I had no idea about the other side of Clark County, and what the school situation was like for other parts of the district, compared with what I know now are privileged schools.
I later worked for the Nevada Conservation League, but couldn’t stop thinking about TFA, so I applied and joined. Not only am I still in education, I’m still in Las Vegas.
You’re entering your first year as an administrator after eight years in the classroom. What pushed you to make the transition?
This fall, I’m going to be an assistant principal for the first time. And yes, the school is in Las Vegas. Where else would it be? (Laughs)
There are a lot of opportunities for professional growth in education. I had spent four years apiece in elementary and high school, so I thought the time was right to take even more of a leadership role in my career.
It sounds corny, but I really can’t wait to see how staffing and budgeting really affects what goes on in schools. As a teacher, I was so heavily into curriculum instruction and assessment, but I didn’t really understand things like staffing ratios and budgets. I’m looking forward to understanding what makes a school tick.
I’m also excited about helping build a school culture. That’s so important. I think of my father. He was a third-generation college graduate, and so, college was kind of a given. Because he was on his own working full-time and taking care of me, it took him nine years to get his bachelor’s degree.
But I remember being six years old wearing his hat after his graduate school ceremony thinking how it cool it was. Looking back, I’m so thankful I had a parent who made college my “normal.” Not every child has that, but if I can do something to make that their normal, that’s my goal.
What is it about your experience in education that has convinced you that not only is this the right move, but that you are ready for such a task ahead?
It all starts with my time as a TFA corps member. I was originally placed in Lowman Elementary in northeast Las Vegas, and it was very challenging. A lot of our kids lived well below the poverty line. Even though I grew up with a single parent, my dad had a degree in engineering, so he was able to provide for me. I had never seen a school where the students had such high needs. And in turn, it was tough for teachers to meet those needs as well.
If students come in hungry, or they’re sick, or they don’t even have appropriate clothing on, you’re going to need to meet those basic needs before you can even focus on the academic part of school. You have to have high expectations, but I think when you really understand what your students’ lives are like and where they’re coming from, you end up approaching them with more compassion and make a personal connection. My corps member experience set the foundation for how I approached my subsequent jobs.
After Lowman, I taught at another elementary school in a low-income community that was just opening, and as the special education teacher there, I had an opportunity to build the system, processes, policies, and procedures for how we handle special education at a school. Then after that, I was recruited by a high school principal at a “turn-around” school to come in as an instructional coach.
My principal described the school as the “emergency room of education,” because it’s in constant crisis and chaos. You are putting out fires left and right. But at the same time, I also got to really gain an understanding of how curriculum, instruction, and assessment affect the performance of a school, and how teacher satisfaction and support play a part in that.
From there, I moved to Valley High for these past two years. My principal there saw the work I was doing and brought up the idea of moving into administration. I thought about it for about six months to make sure it was a good idea, and when I did, I applied to Touro University to get my administrative credential.
You’re now eight years removed from your first day of summer institute with Teach For America. Do you still feel connected to your region?
My former Teach For America Program Director (now called Manager of Teacher Leadership Development, or MTLD) Rebecca Bloch is now the dean and school director in training at Cole High School in Denver. We’ve always kept in touch. I’ve always looked up to her, and she’s been an inspiration to me for the amazing job she did in helping me grow as a teacher. I’m not surprised about the job she’s done in Colorado, and now that I’m an administrator, I will definitely be asking her for advice. The network of support is there.
Ultimately, I’m really thankful Teach For America has Las Vegas Valley as a placement region. In December 2014, the Clark County School District Board of Trustees was voting on whether or not to continue their relationship with TFA. The regional office asked me to offer testimony, and I jumped at the chance because I really do believe Teach For America brings in high-quality teachers to the school district and city I grew up in. I was educated in Las Vegas, and I’m committed to making a difference in the community that has given me so much.