Posted: February 6, 2014 4:15 p.m.
by Shannon Auvil.
Teach For America, a nonprofit organization in the AmeriCorps national service network, recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in high-need communities for two years in a national effort to improve student achievement. Founded in 1990, TFA has impacted almost 3 million students learning in low-income school districts. TFA aims to attract and grow leaders who will impact students’ lives and the educational landscape long after their two-year teaching commitments are up. Communication skills are vital to a corps member’s success in the important roles of teacher and education advocate.
A lifelong commitment
Taylor Jackson knows her commitment to TFA won’t end after her second year of teaching comes to close this spring. In fact, she doubts it will ever end.
“I was born into a legacy of education. But more than that, my family is deeply concerned with social justice, and that is the passion for educational equity that compelled me to apply for TFA,” Jackson said.
Jackson, a 2012 Dallas-Fort Worth corps member, teaches sixth grade reading at KIPP Truth Academy in Oak Cliff, a South Dallas neighborhood. TFA was not always a clear path for Jackson. In college, she felt uncertain about how to find a career that would fulfill her many interests — writing, communication, education, social justice and human rights.
She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. Jackson said her background in communication specifically molded her approach to teaching.
“I approach teaching by creating a series of memorable messages for my students. Communications taught me how to anchor the essential points of my lesson in a coherent, logical and impactful ‘public speech’ that I deliver to my students daily,” Jackson said.
In her communication courses, Jackson learned skills that proved to be extremely important and relevant to her corps experience.
“I took a conflict mediation course that has helped me think critically about the ways I approach challenging classroom situations,” Jackson said. “Being able to effectively communicate with teachers on my team, my administration, parents and students is a direct result of my communication studies degree.”
Jackson’s mother is a second grade teacher, her father is a university administrator, and her sister is an English teacher in the Middle East. This background initiated a passion for education in Jackson and led her to TFA.
“When I found out about TFA, I knew instantly that the opportunity to teach low-income, high-potential students would give me the chance to explore these passions,” Jackson said.
Jackson faces the realities of the achievement gap and inequality in education each day she spends in her Dallas classroom. The experience has profoundly impacted her understanding of the education dynamic in high-need communities.
“My respect and admiration for our low-income students and their families have grown enormously,” Jackson said. “My understanding of the achievement gap in our country and the very real role that race, class, gender and other factors play in educational opportunities has broadened greatly.”
TFA values leadership, opinion development
TFA Recruitment Manager Miles McCauley recruits from The University of Alabama, Auburn University and the University of Mississippi. While he sees graduates apply with various backgrounds and majors, McCauley said public relations, marketing and business are some of the most popular at UA.
“One of the main things that communications students offer is a diversity of experiences,” McCauley said. “Lots of programs have students devoted just to that major, but communications allow students the flexibility to apply their interests in service organizations, churches and jobs.”
TFA offers successful college graduates a variety of teaching options, from locations, grades and subjects. This school year, 11,000 TFA teachers serve 750,000 students in rural and urban school districts.
“You can find yourself anywhere,” McCauley said. “If you’re a finance major, math may be best for you. Economics, science might be good. Of course, for many communications majors with writing and journalism skills, English is common.”
Joining the corps gives graduates the opportunity to execute things they’ve learned in important ways. TFA teachers influence their communities, manage budgets, manage student behavior, and write and design lesson plans. In his experience as a pre-K through sixth grade music teacher in the Mississippi Delta, McCauley said TFA taught corps members to identify the things they want to change in the education system.
“You come away with stronger opinions and stronger feet underneath you about what’s going on in the world,” McCauley said. “For me and other corps members I worked with, we knew what was going on, versus what we wanted to see and change. From that, we knew which direction we wanted the needle to go.”
TFA was recently named a “100 Best Companies to Work For” by Fortune magazine. McCauley credits the organization for its excellent employee support and goal-oriented operations.
“I think it’s great to work for an organization that has a mission and treats employees fairly. TFA makes a commitment to people development and helping people succeed,” McCauley said. “TFA is a nonprofit, but operates like a for-profit in terms of being very accountable and intentional in every action it takes.”
The effect is impressive. Entering the corps, 15 percent of teachers said they were considering a career in education. After their two-year teaching commitment, 63 percent of the teachers continued in education. Of the remaining third, 8 percent chose to go to graduate school, 5 percent pursued law degrees, 4 percent went to business schools, 3 percent accepted government jobs, and 3 percent went to medical school. Fourteen percent went after other pursuits.
Alumna affects lasting change
Kriste Dragon, a 1998 Los Angeles TFA alumna, now serves as the co-founder and CEO of Citizens of the World Charter Schools. Citizens of the World is a national network of nonprofit, academically rigorous public schools serving diverse students in Los Angeles and New York.
Dragon earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies from The University of Alabama. During her first year in TFA, she taught all subjects in sixth grade. She taught seventh grade math in her second year.
“Communications exposed me to many different themes that were important as a teacher and remain important to me today. Toward the end of my time in college, I had to work in groups, and often our projects culminated in presentations to panels or to our full class,” Dragon said. “I have found that the skill of public speaking and the art of working with others are two of the most important facets of my current professional work.”
Dragon said she found her life’s purpose in the classroom while teaching in Los Angeles. It led Dragon to found the first national school network in the country that focuses on educating economically and racially diverse students.
“I deeply believe in the power of human potential, and specifically the potential of all children,” Dragon said. “My time in the corps marked the beginning of a path that I am still pursing, in the hopes of being part of something lasting, and something that might help us all become true citizens of the world.”
Dragon earned her law degree from the University of Georgia prior to joining TFA. Dragon’s time at UA, TFA and UGA helped her realize that schools must prepare students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in an increasingly diverse society.
“We cannot just prepare students academically, but must also promote cross-racial understanding and tolerance among groups and improve life opportunities for all students,” Dragon said.