A decade after walking into Washington D.C.'s Paul Public Charter School as a middle and high school math teacher—and a Teach For America corps member—it's still hurtful to see some of the recent attacks against TFA. But no attack bothers me more than the whole "they only teach for two years" argument. Whether it’s framed as TFA being a resume-builder for uncaring elitists or as an opportunity to give privileged folks the feeling that they are saving the world for a brief period of time, both disturb me greatly.
I can understand how encounters with a select few TFA corps members can give people this impression. But when folks who would never have been involved in education at all decide to teach in public schools for more than two years (more than 60% according to Ed Week, and even more than that according to TFA research), this negative outlook really makes no sense.
When I think back to my senior year at Syracuse University, I was in a great place. I was a computer science major, former student body president, and accepted early to the university’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs and Citizenship. I knew what was supposed to come next: I’d get my MPA, and wind up making decisions about educational and social policies that were totally uninformed because I wouldn’t have any actual understanding of how these decisions affected people. Instead I had the opportunity to hear from a ‘94 TFA alum who posed a question to me. A question I have since heard thousands of times:
“What if every doctor, lawyer, politician and successful business owner spent the first two years of their professional career in education? How different would our education system look?”
And with that, I was sold. I knew I received an excellent education despite my background as a Brooklyn boy, raised by a single mom from another country with a father locked up throughout my teenage years. And I knew this made me an exception to the rule. But I also knew the rule was unjust. And that by delaying my MPA, I would have the opportunity to teach students (with the type of coaching and mentorship few first-year, non-TFA teachers ever receive) while addressing the same injustice I saw so clearly in the world.
I’ve since moved to Las Vegas, where I’ve taught and practiced law. But my time out of the classroom has not stopped my desire to teach, so I founded thinkLaw, a program that uses real-life legal cases to allow teachers to engage critical thinking skills in all students. Critical thinking is currently a luxury good, and it shouldn't be. I also teach one section of Algebra II at a Title I school in my neighborhood because they had a need and teaching fills my soul.
When I think back on my life, I see myself as the "What if." Without Teach For America, I would've just been another policy wonk who didn't realize the value or the power of teacher, student and parent voices. Teach For America was indeed a resume-builder. But it was also an eye-opener, and the "One day" mission continues to inspire me to figure out the best way to deepen my impact. Without Teach For America, I don't think I would have been an advocate in the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV. And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have jumped at the chance to represent foster youth through the Legal Aid of Southern Nevada's Children's Attorney Project. If that's what people want to call building my resume, then I'm guilty. It seems more like building a community to me, and for that I won’t apologize.
I know there is still so much TFA needs to do to improve and deepen its impact, so I remain very connected to the movement through my Las Vegas Valley alumni region and through our outstanding alumni support network.
But I'm just one person. There are thousands of alums whose "What if?" inspirations have driven them to meaningful work in every sector imaginable. To help spread the word about the meaningful work TFA alums are doing, please share how the TFA mission continues to drive your life, using #IAmTheWhatIf to track the discussion.
Colin Seale is an attorney and alum of the D.C. corps. He writes from Las Vegas.