THE BLOG
07/11/2013 09:17 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

What We Heard: Initial Thoughts From the Listening Tour

Four months ago, Matt Kramer and I were jointly honored with the task of leading Teach For America forward. Our first decision was not to act but to stop and listen. We started by hearing reflections from the parents and students we work with, as well as our corps members, alumni, staff, critics and partners from across the country.

What we heard and experienced affirmed why Teach For America remains a positive and critical force in public education and in the broader social justice movement: thoughtful, talented and committed teachers; inspired and engaged students developing the academic, social, and leadership skills needed to become the next generation of leaders; dedicated and insightful veteran educators leading classrooms, schools, and districts; determined and involved parents placing their trust and hope in classroom teachers; and an incredibly diverse Teach For America community bound together by the deep belief that every child can and should be prepared for a fulfilling career and active citizenship.

Today, the Teach For America community is over 40,000 strong -- 11,000 current corps members, 32,000 alumni, and staff. More than 80 percent of our alumni are working toward social justice -- working with low-income communities, in the education field, or both. Approximately one-third of our alumni are teachers; one-third serve in other education roles; and about 15 percent work elsewhere in the movement for social justice. Nearly 40 percent of our corps members identify as people of color or grew up in low-income communities.

Not surprisingly in a community as large and diverse as ours, we hold a wide range of opinions not only about public education and what it will take to reach educational equity in our country, but also about Teach For America in particular. We get all kinds of feedback -- both complimentary and critical -- from our corps members, fellow educators, and alumni. We welcome this. Every forward-thinking organization needs a mechanism for listening, learning, responding, and evolving.

On the supportive side, we heard parents and school leaders express gratitude for Teach For America corps members, a group of people they found to be hard working, energetic, caring, open-minded, effective, and committed. We also heard parents, superintendents and community leaders celebrate the impact our alumni are having in their neighborhoods through the leadership they have assumed in and outside of schools, and the role they are playing in setting the highest expectations for their children. And finally, we heard corps members, alumni, and veteran teachers from other pathways talk about the joy of teaching. They spoke about the invaluable opportunity Teach For America affords in allowing them to deeply get to know and fall in love with their kids and communities in a way that changes them forever, and giving them the chance to make a difference in the lives of children not just for two years but for the rest of their lives. As a former public school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, I know that few jobs are more important, challenging and rewarding.

On the critical side, we heard some corps members say they felt underprepared and under-supported -- especially in their first year of teaching. Others suggested that attracting people to teaching based on a two-year commitment is not always in the best interests of the profession or the students we teach. We heard the need for many more of our Teach For America corps members to share the racial and cultural backgrounds of their students.

Most of these critiques are not new, but that does not make them any less relevant. The fact that third party studies consistently show that our teachers, on average, boost student achievement as much or more than other novice teachers does not diminish our concern that some of our corps members struggle. Like traditionally prepared classroom colleagues, we are deeply committed to elevating and strengthening the teaching profession and do not think for a minute that ours is the only approach to producing great educators. With respect to the diversity of our corps, based on our 23 years of experience watching teachers of all backgrounds and experiences thrive and make an undeniable impact with their students, we fervently believe in the necessity for our students to see positive models of leaders who mirror them. At the same time, we know that exceptional teachers come from all backgrounds, and do not need to reflect their students' specific demographics in order to have the desired and necessary impact they seek.

With the summer now upon us, we plan to do some fresh thinking around how we train and support our teachers and how we continue to increase the recruitment of an even more diverse pool of people. We also want our corps members to see Teach For America as a lifelong commitment to social justice. We fully expect our alumni to spend the rest of their lives -- both inside and outside of school buildings -- working toward the day when every child in our country has access to an excellent education. That commitment extends beyond the classroom to the complex and intensely challenging issues of poverty and economic inequity. To make meaningful progress, we need leaders who are deeply grounded in poverty's root causes and have an unwavering belief in our kids' potential.

We begin, however, by acknowledging that we will only make progress by embracing a big tent of diverse and sometimes divergent perspectives. A big tent that holds a truth that unites us all: a belief that all kids -- no matter what their race, background, or socio-economic status -- can achieve at the highest levels. We're held together because we can envision a day in our lifetime when all children in America have the opportunity for a truly excellent education, and we strive to achieve that ambitious goal. We are held together because we all feel personally responsible for the futures of the children we teach.

We believe that a big tent philosophy makes us stronger. We have a growing community with a wide spectrum of thoughts, a community that cares deeply about this work. We acknowledge our differences openly and honestly, because this work is so hard and so important. We are held together by our willingness to hear other's perspectives, to engage in continuous and deep reflection, and to evolve our thoughts as we learn more. It will require that our community engage with one another thoughtfully by grounding critiques and challenges of each other in a spirit of generosity.

I, for one, will seek to focus my energy on staying connected to the lives of our students and their families in order to remain grounded in the consequences and stakes of not getting this right with this generation and in our lifetime.

I discovered my life's work, commitment and beliefs when I began teaching 15 years ago. I was reminded of them again during our listening tour, seeing my colleagues from across the country who are "all in" on this fight for justice and equity, inside and outside of the Teach For America community. With full energy and resolve, I look forward to charging ahead and making the progress our children and their families deserve.