Dear Yale Class of 2005,
I write to inform you of an upcoming deadline. On midnight this Sunday, Oct. 24, the first application for Teach for America will pass. While you are no doubt facing many deadlines, I hope that you will give this one special attention and decide to apply.
I must admit that my reasons are mainly selfish ones. Yes, there are some selfless reasons as well, namely that Teach for America will offer you a chance to grow and develop personally and professionally. But mostly, my reasons are purely selfish.
Allow me a chance to explain before you turn to the crossword. Since graduating from Yale in 2001, I have joined a movement to end educational iniquities in this country. This movement takes hard work and dedication, and bright energetic young leaders — people, in short, like you. I was hoping you would join this movement. I have other selfish reasons as well. The students whom I have taught over the last three and a half years — students in rural Mississippi and inner-city Houston — need great teachers to inspire and motivate them, to ensure that they learn and excel. I don’t want to see them fail, and I believe that you could help them.
Your job would not be easy. I will admit that now. Teaching in general, and especially teaching in an under-resourced school, is a demanding job that requires people with excellent critical thinking, interpersonal skills and, above all else, stamina. You would be asked to work unreasonable hours and reach unreasonable goals and collaborate with administrators and parents who may not be entirely supportive. You will succeed if you stare down problems and see possibilities, if you begin each day determined to make it better then the last.
It’s true that some have failed at teaching. And yet, well over 90 percent of Teach for America corps members complete their two-year commitment. As an alumnus of Teach for America, I find myself connected to a network of people devoted to improving education: former teachers of the year, education reporters, business and law school students, founders of new schools and writers of curricula — all of whom were transformed by their two years of teaching and who carry their insights with them into whatever fields they pursue.
I will admit too that teaching does not offer the most tangible rewards. No doubt you know that teaching is not as lucrative as consulting or as prestigious as graduate school. But there are other rewards. Here are some of mine: the student who began the year hating math but ended the year loving it; the student who says thank you after a lesson because she learned something; the parent who calls you a godsend; the tennis players I coach who play until dark when the balls are but flickers in the dusk; the student who calls from college to say that the math is easy now; the students who still call every weekend to check in and ask what books to read and tell me what rap singers to listen to; the feeling that you have spent a day, a week or a year putting the needs of others before your own and that you are better for it.
I promise you that you have something unique to offer students. I hold nothing but the highest respect for career teachers who have given their lives to education — it may be that I will one day become one of them — but you are different. Your youth, your idealism, your passion and enthusiasm, they set you apart. You have not been worn down by years of working in a frustrating system. You have not yet been told what you cannot accomplish. Your energy and perspective can offer students a new view on the world. What do children in the Mississippi Delta know about Model UN conferences, about hatha yoga, organic farming, improvisational comedy or even Yale? What do they know of success and educational opportunity? And would you be willing to teach them? Would you be willing to commit your talents to people who may not have even had the chance to discover their talents?
As a teacher, you are charged with the responsibility to build a community of learners in your classroom, to help young adults grow intellectually and morally, to address injustice, to motivate those who are unmotivated, to teach someone to love learning so much that they will never stop.
What could be more meaningful?
At the end of two years, you will discover that you have acquired organization, planning and managerial skills that will transfer to whatever you choose to do next. You will find that words such as racism and inequality are no longer abstract to you. And whether you become an academic, entrepreneur or professional, you will always remain an advocate for education and for those whom education has shortchanged.
Finally, I must confess that nothing could make me happier than scores of talented Yalies dedicating themselves to ending education inequality. I’m just that selfish.
Chong-Hao Fu ’01 is a former Yale Daily News columnist. He taught high school math for three years in the Mississippi Delta through the Teach for America program and currently teaches at the KIPP Academy in Houston, Texas.