Kim: Teaching for America

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.


  • y10br

    I’m pretty disgusted by this article. It simple exists as a propaganda vessel for TFA. If I had known that the opinions page could be co-opted like that, maybe I would have organized with a variety of other employers through my time at Yale. Maybe I still can.

    And everything I severely dislike about TFA is in droves here: the self-righteousness, the cover of ‘leadership’, the complete disdain for actual educational work, not just two-year programs and random boot camps.,

    Quite frankly, if public education went the way of TFA, our children would be screwed.

  • bthompson26

    Sure, there are things to dislike about TFA, and I should know as I am a corp member. However, I think the first comment fails to take into account that this organization is filled with ordinary people serving a good cause. We are not overachieving superheroes like the media portrays us. I joined the organziation after serving 3.5 years in the Army, and I am proud to continue serving my country with teachers like Wookie Kim. This job is one of the greatest challenges in my life, and I say that even though I spent 13 months fighting in Afghanistan. I believe I am doing good work as a teacher, and I do fail at times. But, I am deeply committed to pushing my students and challenging them everyday.

    I don’t understand the need to bash TFA when it is doing good work for this country. Is it the cure for closing the achievement gap? I don’t believe it is, but it brings high-quality people into the field of education. I think criticism is beneficial, but there are too many people who take criticism to extremes and fail to focus on the positives. When I hear the critics, I just read the quote below from Theodore Roosevelt.

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

  • Summer

    > Our public schools are, simply put, in a hot mess.

    This is embarrassing to read in the YDN. I guess we can answer the question “is our children learning” if this is how their teachers write.

  • ajw

    Thanks to Mr. Kim for his very thoughtful article, and for all that he does every day to make his students’ lives better. I wish him and all of his students the very best of luck.

  • hoyafinisher

    As said earlier, TFA is by no means the only solution to closing the achievement gap in this country, but I definitely believe it is a step in the right direction. Being able to bring in people who have the drive and dedication needed to solve this problem is exactly what TFA is able to do. They are ordinary people with a passion to serve, and that’s the first step towards solving ANY problem in this country. Yes, there are many who criticize the 2-year commitment or the fact that some use it as a resume booster, but remember that most in this program remain in the classroom after the 2-year commitment at least one more year, and after that many go out into the field of education reform. Even those who pursue other careers at least understand FIRST HAND the problems that our children are facing in today’s public schools. That knowledge by itself is immensely valuable, and will likely affect any alum’s point of view for the rest of their lives. I believe that Mr. Kim’s article is a perfect example of this. He may not know where he is headed yet, but we ALL know that he will take this experience with him and I am sure he will work in some way, shape, or form to make America a better place for its children.

  • pablum

    TFA makes a mockery of education, but it sure looks good on a resume. (In fact, that’s how they pitch it.)

  • pcppp10

    “And everything I severely dislike about TFA is in droves here: the self-righteousness, the cover of ‘leadership’, the complete disdain for actual educational work, not just two-year programs and random boot camps.,
    Quite frankly, if public education went the way of TFA, our children would be screwed.”

    If you want to criticize Teach for America for being a shamelessly aggressive (and effective) marketer… then fine, guilty as charged. Your criticism of TFA’s mission, however, is misguided and sounds needlessly bitter. Public education in America already has our children screwed. That’s the point. Whether for 2 years or for a whole career – at least TFA is making people aware of the problem, and actively trying to fix it.

  • ironbulldog

    >I guess we can answer the question **”is our children learning”** if this is how their teachers write.

    I guess we can answer the question “did Summer learn anything when she was in school” if this is how she writes.

  • bwoelber

    I think it’s important to note that many of the people with the highest disdain for TFA are teachers themselves, especially those with an undergraduate or advanced degree in teaching education. Doesn’t this make sense? Imagine if you spent four to six years on your degree, only to see someone else go through a six week boot camp to receive more acclaim than you. That’s enough to make anyone rancorous.

    Additionally, this perceived “self-righteousness” isn’t endemic to TFA teachers, its a trait (or perceived one) common of all high achievers. I attended Yale’s graduation in 2009. If you want to talk about self-righteousness, you won’t find it in any greater quantity than there. The reason that so many TFA teachers are so self-righteous, I presume, is because high achievers (from which TFA recruits) are shameless self promoters. If you’re a Yaley, just look at the description of the jobs on your resume. Shameless self-promotion? A bit self-righteous? I’m sure its there.

    And lastly, the best point that Wookie makes, whether he intended to or not, is that he could’ve gotten a desk job making much better money but he didn’t. Instead, he’s taking less money to do more meaningful work, and you all are criticizing TFA for it? Please. Don’t you have better things to quibble about? Wall-Street bailouts? Billion dollar war expenditures? Anyone? Really? For shame. There’s nothing worse than ill informed and undue criticism.

  • Summer


    You’re probably too young to remember this, but:

    [Is our children learning][1]


  • Yale12

    Wow, major fail, ironbulldog.

  • RexMottram08

    RE: teacher credentialing…


    Bachelor’s in Women & Gender Studies
    Master’s in Education
    M.Div @ Yale Divinity School

  • JE09

    As a TFA corps member, I would agree that this piece reads very much as TFA propaganda. It’s very easy to drink the TFA kool-aid within the TFA realm. Mr. Kim makes some excellent points about the “relentless pursuit” of so many of his TFA colleagues. The obvious omissions from this article are the many shortcomings of TFA in addressing the achievement gap and bettering the schools in which corps members are placed. One reality so many people at Yale have trouble accepting is that first, and often second, year teachers are generally terrible. It does not matter your academic pedigree, the learning curve is steep and intelligence and work ethic are not enough to counteract the problems that novice teachers face. Compounding this problem is the fact that the majority of TFA corps members leave after two years, meaning TFA’s and the school’s investment in these novice teachers never yields full returns.

    I have accepted that if I do not teach past this year that I am part of the problem and have struggled with this very fact. Unfortunately the TFA propaganda, which is disseminated from the first recruitment contact through the corps member experience clouds thoughtful and reflective thinking on teaching practice and the profession as a whole. There is good that comes out of TFA, but we must recognize the problems TFA creates in order to devise solutions to so many educational problems in this country.

  • spes

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I truly admire your efforts. It’s rare to find the type of people who are willing to work incredibly hard for students – instead of working incredibly hard for themselves. While good causes will always have naysayers, it is important for people who are working to better the state of education to have a voice and, hopefully, those who want to help too can listen with an open mind. You are doing some of the most important work in the world and no one can take that away from you.

  • byerleco

    I am shocked at some of these comments. Teach for America is not an employer. It helps new teachers find jobs in high need schools. I think putting something like this in a college newspaper is incredibly appropriate because perhaps it will inspire people to get involved in education. If you are at Yale you know that you can be a teacher- it’s much harder to get accepted to an Ivy League than get a job as a teacher with no credentials. Teach for America has to tell people at Ivy League schools that TFA will look good on their resume because that is what a lot of people are thinking about.

    And I think it’s wonderful that people who are thinking like that end up in a classroom, faced with insurmountable challenges and are brought back to reality. Sure, I was great in college and got my homework done, but TFA taught me more about life and the world than anything I learned in a book. I never knew that I’d spend my life caring about education, and now I do, thanks to TFA and their path into the classroom.
    I don’t understand why we are seen as self-righteous. I don’t think I’m perfect. I don’t think that I did a great job everyday or changed every students life. I don’t think i was better than the non TFA teachers at my school. But I know that even if I’m not perfect, I’m certainly going to make education better by spending my life on it. I know I already have made a difference to some people.

    And, it’s true that lots of us leave the classroom. But we leave the classroom changed. For life. I’m in graduate school studying mathematics education and I know I never would have considered this path without TFA. I think that it’s okay that we teach for two years, make lots of mistakes, leave changed and go on with our lives. Because we keep the teaching in mind, and we know that it matters and keep working on social justice from so many areas. Personally, I know that teaching is a really hard job that I could spend a life time getting better at but I want to do something that suits my strengths a bit better. I don’t think that only teaching for four years was a problem-I learned a lot and will keep giving back. And so many other CM’s are doing that too.

    What would people prefer to TFA? Not sending these recent ivy leagers into the classroom and instead straight to law school to make lots of money? I don’t think TFA thinks it’s awesome that these communities get brand new inexperienced teachers but the alternative of long term subs is not better at all.

    Anyways, keep up the good work! Cameron (mathlovergrows up from teach for us)