By Brendan Hawkes – Teach for America Corps Member (Atlanta):
This post is regarding Teach for America’s potential move to Buffalo. The issue will be up for a vote tomorrow night at the BPS Board of Education meeting. I think my recent experience as a TFA Corps Member will provide an interesting perspective to those people who are still coming to a conclusion on the topic.
You’ve probably heard this one before. Young, white, college grad from an elite school spends a couple years teaching poor, minority kids in some downtrodden inner city. When his commitment is over, he leaves education as fast as he came, and uses the experience as a lever for his career.
If I hadn’t joined Teach For America myself, this might be what I associate with the organization. My experience, however, was much different.
I went to City Honors in the Fruit Belt, a section of Buffalo where graffiti spatters condemned houses and weeds from overgrown vacant lots spill into the side walk. Up until recently, public housing shared the front lawn of the school’s campus. The contrast was striking: there, elevated on a hill, above the fray of poverty and blight, was a sparkling example of some of the best public education in the United States. Those who graduated from City Honors would invariably go on to do impressive things once they collected degrees from the nation’s top universities. Yet right across the street lived children who would never have access to the school they neighbored. A place that fully embodied upward mobility was hopelessly out of reach to those who needed it most.
I thought about joining Teach For America after I graduated from college because four years after I left City Honors, that image still resonated. My mother, a long time BPS teacher, encouraged me to apply. When I was asked to teach in Atlanta, I readily accepted. I moved because I wanted to find out if it was possible for public education to be equitable. I knew I was willing to do whatever it took to replicate my experience at City Honors for my students.
Not long after stepping onto the Georgia Tech campus for an intensive training institute, I was introduced to a diverse group of intelligent, engaging young people. Most of them possessed leadership qualities I envied, and all of them were willing to do whatever their roles required. By the end of the summer, we had pushed ourselves through five and a half weeks of 16-hour days of teaching and learning. Our bodies were fatigued, but our focus was strengthened.
None of our experiences over the next two years would be the same. Success came easier to some than others. Teaching is an art really, nuanced more than trained. It is the combination of relationship building, technical ability, organization, planning, and empathy working together in perfect harmony. Some people are naturals at this juggling act and others aren’t. The Teach For America teachers I knew wouldn’t stop until their students were successful, no matter where they fell on the spectrum. If some needed help delivering lessons, there were coaches in the classroom until they got it right. They observed veteran teachers at their schools to borrow best practices and picked their brains at the end of the day. If planning was an obstacle, their teacher mentors would work with them until the necessary skills were honed tightly. We were part of a community where everyone understood there was no room for failure.
When the two years were up, no person was the same as that first day at Georgia Tech. We had all experienced something that had changed us forever. The majority of my friends decided to keep teaching. They loved the practice of it, and thrived on the exchange of knowledge that took place everyday with their students. Some of the more wonkish ones went on to pursue education policy. A few went into business and embarked on new journeys. Each one of us left the corps knowing that our experience would forever inform our decision-making, that in some capacity, education was at the root of each success and failure in this country.
When I heard about the possibility of Teach For America coming to Buffalo, it made obvious sense. The more civically engaged people in our city, willing to do whatever it took to help students succeed, the better, right? I then remembered not everyone had shared my experience. Not everyone understood that even though some TFA alumni do leave the classroom eventually, their commitment to education is unwavering.
I hope that when the topic comes to a vote at the Board of Education meeting tomorrow, residents of Buffalo will support it. Teach For America teachers are not a silver bullet for public schools. I’m willing to bet though, when it comes to our students, they’ll do whatever it takes.