Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Teach For America: An alumna’s perspective on entering the Corps

In the last several weeks, The Stanford Daily has provided a mix of coverage regarding Teach For America. One issue featured the story of former corps member Joe Vasquez, sharing what his Latino identity meant in his classroom. Days later, an opinion from a columnist suggested that Teach For America narrow its ambitions in ending inequity. While it is easy to view the current education system as series of sharp contrasts and opposing sides, my experiences as an educator have taught me something different: There’s always more to know than what we see on the surface.

As a senior at Stanford, I faced the same dilemma that so many others do: I wanted to start a career that I found interesting, rewarding and fulfilling. As a Political Science major, I found myself in an odd place – qualified for many paths, but unsure of which to actually follow. That fall, I applied for Teach For America knowing that it would fulfill my desire to give back and promised a certain degree of distinction. I applied, I was accepted and, many days, I doubted my decision.

After a grueling summer of training and student teaching in Los Angeles, I was hired at an elementary school in San Jose. From the outside, my teaching assignment looked easy: twenty kids, mostly on or just under their grade level, a fair amount of parental support and a brand new building with state of the art technology. But, upon further inspection, things weren’t as they seemed. Our class size limit was twenty because our we’d historically scored so low on standardized test scores that we qualified for a multi-million dollar grant to adjust the student-teacher ratio, in the hopes that this would boost student achievement. Though my students were considered on or just-below grade level, most of them had only ever had instruction in math or reading – hardly a “well-rounded education.” While parents cared deeply and worked hard to support their kids, most could not speak English, many did not graduate high school and, therefore, presently find it challenging to be an active partner in their child’s education. And despite the newness of the building, it was constantly vandalized and its technology stolen, because our school couldn’t afford security equipment.

Needless to say, my first year of teaching taught me about patience, problem solving, communication, professionalism and how to persevere. When I look back, I am both proud and amazed that I survived. Despite the challenges I faced, I found teaching to be rewarding, fulfilling and important.  I found pride in the fact that every day I knew that I was contributing to our society with work that is desperately needed.  I was also comforted in the fact that my students were proud of me: Every single student and parent knew what Stanford represents and the kind of options it gave someone like me. Equally important, my Hispanic heritage gave them all hope that they could achieve the same accomplishments because they saw their futures mirrored in my life. In the final analysis, though my kids certainly learn from my lesson plans, more than anything, they learn from me – from the experiences I relate, the hope I help instill and the promises I make about hard work and perseverance paying off.

After four years of teaching, I am glad that I chose to Teach For America. I have learned the value that my life holds for others, and nothing is more rewarding than waking up in the morning with a sense of purpose. Though TFA has its critics – I’m often the first to be vocal about how the organization can improve – it is an undeniably impactful program bolstered by ambitious people who wholeheartedly want to make a difference in our world. What is the downside in that? I ask that current Stanford students look past simple narratives to see the challenges and opportunities that make education a rich, exciting, and vital field.

Regina Pair ’10

Regina Pair is a Teach For America Bay Area alum and currently teaches fourth grade at Anne Darling Elementary School. She can be contacted at reginapair ‘at’ gmail.com.

  • Alecia

    My question would be this: are you planning on remaining as a classroom teacher? Or are you going to leave the classroom but “remain in education” (usually TFA code for becoming an administrator or other bigwig and gaining lots of money and prestige that way), or are you going to use your TFA experience to get a big splashy job somewhere outside of education? (Google is hiring!) The fact that you have taught for four years shows that you seem a bit more serious than the vast majority of the TFA graduates that I know, many of whom can’t wait until their required two years are up. I hope you do remain as a classroom teacher. We need someone who is willing to do it for the long haul, and not for a few years until they get a “real” job. The people who stick with it are the ones who have our true respect.

  • dgodon

    It’s always surprising when TFA proponents naively ask what’s wrong with enthusiastic and ambitious young working to help kids. They just assume that because they’re smart, determined, and want to help that they can only do good. Yes, it’s great to want to help, but that doesn’t mean following TFA’s approach can only help. TFA is exacerbating the churn of ill-trained novice teachers for poor minority students. This hurts them. TFA is a willing partner is school privatization efforts which is hurting students and poor communities and undermining democratic local governance. TFA’s leader alums are promoting the worst kinds of reforms which are hurting students, teachers, and communities. TFA is doing more harm than good. Good intentions are not sufficient.

  • dgodon

    For more on TFA, check out http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/