Two years ago, David Stanley ’05, a Teach For America Recruitment Director, asked if I’d be interested in talking about education over coffee in Bass Café. Having just run the New York City Marathon, I winced at the idea of carrying my sore body to Bass for something beyond the list of jobs I was already considering. Though I was, like my peers, spending much of my free time signing up for interview slots on UCS’s website, I had not seriously thought about Teach For America.
But I decided to go. I could not have made a better choice. Two years later, I know that my decision to join Teach For America — to commit two years of my life to teaching in a high-need classroom — was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The moment I arrived at “Institute,” our five-week training program, I learned that I was among truly special people. It wasn’t what these people had previously accomplished that caught my attention; it was the palpable energy, devoted entirely towards becoming effective teachers, that emanated from each person I met. And we worked hard. By the end of the summer, I had discovered what truly bound us together: we would do whatever it takes to change the life trajectories of students and eliminate the injustice of educational inequity.
Every day, I see my friends carrying out this commitment. One of my roommates, a special education teacher, is out of our house well before the sun rises and usually doesn’t come home before the sun sets. Another, a middle school math teacher, serves as both the math and science department chair at his school — one that went into restructuring this year due to its history of poor achievement. They, like most corps members, are a relentless bunch.
Unsurprisingly, our lifestyle is exhausting. At times, I feel overwhelmed, disheartened, even helpless. But the love with which my roommates welcome me home helps me press on. We share anecdotes and help each other problem-solve on how best to help our kids and ourselves. I know that because of the support that they, and the phenomenal TFA regional staff, provide, I will keep working relentlessly for my kids, who deserve nothing less than that
I, as a corps member, am part of a truly national movement — one that goes far beyond the confines of any one school or district.
Today, this movement is reaching a critical mass. Public education is our nation’s single-most pressing civil rights issue. Our public schools are, simply put, in a hot mess. Every nine seconds a student drops out of school. In D.C. Public Schools, where I teach, only 13 percent of eighth graders are proficient readers based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A problem of this magnitude can’t be solved without a unified national movement that is working, in a compelling and powerful way, to end educational inequity.
In the past two years, I have found how deeply connected I am to such a broad movement while on a road trip to visit fellow corps members and a visit to high-performing schools led, and staffed, by TFA alumni. These experiences have shown me just how much we share: the 5:45 a.m. wake-up calls, the communal packing of lunchboxes, the mindsets revealed during passionate discussions. Moreover, we see what is possible in public education. And because of that I remain optimistic. Right here in D.C., over 300 Teach For America alums work on Capitol Hill, and Kaya Henderson, TFA alum and former Executive Director of our DC region, was named interim Chancellor for the DC schools.
It’s a long, hard road. But there are no excuses for failure and I know that Teach For America alumni can be leaders in this struggle. I think about how life would have been different if I had not chosen to talk to join Teach For America. My job would still challenge me to do my best. But the pressure that I feel from knowing that I make an immediate, daily impact on students’ lives weighs much more heavily than would any Excel spreadsheet.
I am still not certain about what I will end up doing with my career. At this point, I’m not focused on that. My students matter each day, and I know that the same energy that drives me and my fellow corps members to do our best for them will remain with me.
Knowing what I know now, I would have made the same decision to apply that day in Bass. I know that my experience has forever positively changed my own life path, and hopefully my students’ as well. Perhaps you will let it change yours, too.
Wookie Kim is a 2009 graduate of Ezra Stiles College.