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Teach For America Alumni Return to the Classroom
New research suggests alumni are spending more years teaching than we once thought—especially teachers who move into, out of, and back into the classroom.
How long do most Teach For America corps members teach?
A new analysis of alumni responses on the annual Teach For America Alumni Survey reveals that the majority do not stop teaching after two years, and a significant proportion (as many as half from some corps years) report they have taught for significantly longer. Of those alumni who had abundant opportunities to teach for more than five years—those who entered the corps before 2002, for example—approximately half reported they have done so. (Check the chart below to see what percentage of your corps year taught for three or four, five or six, or seven years and longer.)
TFA researchers Raegen Miller and Rachel Perera, in completing the new analysis (based on an annual survey of alumni with a 70 percent response rate), say researchers may have previously underestimated the length of alums’ teaching careers in part because surveyors previously asked not how many years in total alums have taught, but how many they taught consecutively following their time as corps members. (Find the full report on the Teach For America website.)
“When considering retention, researchers who look only at whether teachers stuck with the schools where they started miss the fuller picture of teachers who move to other schools or districts or return to teaching from time away,” says Miller, the author of many peer-reviewed articles and other original research on teacher workforce policy.
It turns out that Teach For America alumni teachers have non-linear, job-switching careers like the rest of America. (The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the youngest baby boomers held more than 11 jobs between ages 18 and 48, and millennials are predicted to change jobs with greater frequency than earlier generations). Many left teaching for other professions, family responsibilities, or graduate school, then returned.
Some, like Martin Winchester (R.G.V. ’95), stayed in education but not consistently in the classroom. He spent 15 of the last 20 years teaching, stepping away to launch new schools and be Teach For America’s executive director in the Rio Grande Valley. He says he’s able to commit to teaching for another decade (until his three kids pass through his classes) because in the R.G.V., teaching affords a middle class lifestyle.
Others, like Mary Lou Bruno (New Jersey ‘96), took a long detour. She taught first grade for three years until 1999, then started up again two years ago as a first grade teacher after a 13-year time-out to lead adult learning, among other jobs.
LeRoy Wong (E.N.C. ‘93), spent three years teaching and 16 in education administration before joining a turnaround Boston elementary school last year as a technology teacher. At age 45, with a spouse and two children, he felt the strain of returning to the classroom while spending nights taking courses to get re-certified, even though he’d trained teachers in his previous job. It was, he says, “almost like doing my Teach For America experience all over again.”
One Day spoke to several alums who career-switched back into teaching and asked them why, how, and what could make it easier for teachers to stay or return. Three words recurred: flexibility, salary, and respect.
TAUGHT NINTH GRADE BIOLOGY IN D.C. FOR TWO YEARS; then two years as a herpetology keeper at Zoo Atlanta; then to the University of Maryland for a master’s degree in conservation biology and sustainable development; taught AP environmental science, earth science and chemistry for two years at East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina; left to research meerkat behavior in the Kalahari desert with a Duke University team; resuming his old job at East Chapel Hill this school year.
“Going into teaching,” Kabay says, “I knew I was going to bounce, at least for a while. The teachers I connected with growing up were the ones who had real life experience in the sciences. As an educator, it’s really important to me to stay connected to my field.”
Kabay believes his students benefit when he bounces. After his first year at East Chapel Hill High School, the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers Fellowship got him to Panama for a summer to do amphibian research with a team of scientists from the University of Maryland, and to teach in a Panamanian grade school. Through that connection, he was able to set up a biodiversity observation project for students back in North Carolina.
He can’t imagine doing the same job (teaching or another) year after year forever, but he’d like to at least hit what he considers the lethally effective five-to-10-year teacher mark. “When I find a place to build a long-term career, in science or education, maintaining a connection with both fields will be a priority for me.”
Stimulating professional development would entice him to keep teaching, but he says, “I know my district doesn’t have any money for out-of-town travel.” He adds, “I feel strongly that allowing teachers to pursue their interests can go a long way to maintaining the desire to continually improve their classroom practices.”
TAUGHT FOR TWO YEARS IN HOUSTON; then became a TFA program director; spent eight years as a purchasing manager for a medical products importer; returned to teaching last year at Legal Prep Charter Academy in Chicago.
After 10 years out of the classroom, Quincy Hudson took a $35,000 pay cut last year to become a teacher and college coach at a start-up Chicago high school. He was recruited by the husband of a 1999 alum who—back when they were students a year apart at the University of Illinois—had enticed Hudson to join Teach For America.
When he returned from Houston to Illinois years ago for family reasons, Hudson had intended to keep teaching, but Illinois did not recognize Texas certification. During his years in business, “I was able to save up money and pay off my student loans and buy a house.” He stayed close to Chicago-area alumni, helping the regional team recruit, and eventually felt called back to work with students with few resources. They reminded him of who he once was.
Hudson says his days are long at the new school where he teaches law, literature, and film, runs the National Honor Society, coaches step, and works with OneGoal to support college-going seniors. Because his charter school can have a limited number of noncertified teachers on staff, he says he’s able to handle all those responsibilities without also doing coursework.
Now that he’s saved money, salary is not a deciding job factor, Hudson says. “In the classroom itself, a strong support network is always good. Really good professional development is important. Seeing my kids grow and learn and graduate and go off to college—that would help me stay in the classroom as well.”
TAUGHT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL FOR TWO YEARS IN PHOENIX; earned a law degree at the University of Texas; had a son and took a break before the bar exam; worked six months in the Texas Attorney General’s office; left to substitute teach, then taught wellness and kindergarten for two years at KIPP Austin Comunidad; left to work part-time as a lawyer for Texas School Boards Association; expecting a second child.
“When I was young, I was sure I was going to be a teacher,” says Wightman, “but going to law school was to prove how smart I was. Now that I’m in my 30s, I think, man, that was an expensive mistake. I still have loans to pay back.”
Wightman says she is sure she wants to work in education for the rest of her life, but she’s struggled to find completely satisfying work either in law or the classroom. In her first law job, she parsed deadly dull open records law and worked 12 hours in a cubicle on New Year’s Eve. At night, she’d dream about teaching. While she switched to teaching at KIPP Austin Comunidad, she says, “I understood the need for a long school day, but I’m not 23 anymore where I can put in those hours.”
She also yearns for respect. “When you tell people you teach kindergarten, they think that’s adorable. When you say you practice law, they think you must really be on it.”
Wightman is happy now as a school boards lawyer. “If I stay in law, I’m only going to do school law and nothing else because I’m a mission-driven person, and that aligned well with KIPP,” she says. “If I don’t do that, I’ll go back to teaching. But there’s also motherhood, the third wrench.” She is concerned by the “jumping around” on her resume. But compared to law, she says, the teaching profession welcomes comebacks warmly.
TAUGHT BILINGUAL FIRST GRADE FOR THREE YEARS; got a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University; worked for education nonprofits including Sapientis, which focuses on improving schools in the place her family is from, Puerto Rico; managed adult learning for consultants at Deloitte; married and took a break to regroup; returned to teach for two years at a D.C. public elementary; starting this year as an instructional coach at a reopening D.C. school, Van Ness Elementary.
In her first three years, Mary Lou Bruno says, “I absolutely loved teaching, and what I really loved was being in a school. But as a corps member I was placed in New Jersey. I grew up in New Jersey, I went to undergrad in New Jersey, and I thought if I stayed in teaching for my entire career, I would never leave New Jersey and have other experiences. I didn’t want to have what I thought would be a one-dimensional life.”
She stayed in education with a nonprofit for a while, but yearned to earn enough money to achieve a life goal. “My parents never owned the home I grew up in. I wanted to have that stability.” While at Deloitte, she bought a D.C. condo. But she never stopped feeling that her place was in a school.
Returning to the classroom at age 39 “was the best decision I ever made.” What’s different today, she says, is that “there is a pathway now in D.C. schools to be a teacher leader” without becoming an administrator. As an instructional coach, she’ll use the adult education skills she developed at Deloitte to coach new teachers and help seasoned teachers develop peer-to-peer learning. “If we want to keep our best, smart, motivated teachers,” she says, “then we need to give them opportunities to lead.”