08/07/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

In Defense of Teach for America

My stomach ties in knots any time I tell someone that I'm a Teach For America corps member. I brace myself for the skepticism to come. I can hear the assumptions running through someone's brain before they even start talking. She's too young. She doesn't even want to be a teacher. She won't stay. At first, I jumped at opportunities to defend myself. I did it on first dates, during family parties, and even at the grocery store. Over a year, refuting the same arguments has become laborious. It is challenging to convince someone that I am passionate about education when they have already discredited my integrity and my ability.

The Onion recently cast a shadow across my friend group when their "Volunteer Teacher" article hit a little too close to home. I thought about my own students, who mention teachers that left, promising to return, but never did. In reality, the article highlighted the ongoing struggle to assert the legitimacy of TFA teachers. A counterpoint, written by a TFA Houston alum, explained the issue succinctly: "I am a real teacher."

When TFA teachers go through the same hiring process, pass the same tests, and are subjected to the same evaluations as other teachers, it's difficult to understand why we're not considered "real." Like other teachers without a degree in education, we complete an alternative certification program. Like other teachers, we attend professional development at our schools (not to mention additional professional development through TFA). Like other teachers, we can be let go if we do not perform. The fixation on a lack of education degree is misguided. It is not a new or novel idea; it only became more publicized as TFA became more visible.

In 2011, Time attempted to debunk the "Five Myths" about TFA, including the suggestion that TFA teachers were less effective than other teachers. Overall, studies show that TFA teachers are at least as effective as other teachers in urban schools. Yet nearly a year later, I find myself repeating these studies or trying to convince a stranger that I witness the dedication of TFA corps members every single day. The charter organization I work for, YES Prep Public Schools, was founded by a TFA alum. Out of a staff of 62 at my school, nearly a third are TFA alums or current corps members. I watch these people commit their lives to ending the achievement gap and making sure that all of our children have access to an excellent education. Their work is undeniably real.

As TFA expands, critics have noted the lack of TFA teachers remaining in the classroom. However, more than half of teachers stay in the classroom for a third year, and over two-thirds of TFA alums stay in the education field. These critics also overlook the fact that it is impossible to quantify the emotional stress of working in an urban school, whether you are a TFA teacher or not. In my first few months of teaching I watched students' parents be deported, had children tell me that their family members had been shot, and picked up notes about sex and pregnancy. Teachers in low-income schools often become mentors, counselors, or even family to their students. They help students through issues such as death, gang violence, rape, and abuse. In 2009, a report showed that 6% of teachers left the profession each year; however 50% of teachers in urban schools left within five years. The capacity for any person to carry these emotional burdens is limited.

Not every single TFA teacher will forge a career in education; some may only be slightly better than the teacher in the classroom next to them. But TFA has begun to raise awareness about educational inequality and social injustice. They have created a large, diverse network of people in a variety of careers who are committed to improving the education system. TFA has brought education back into the spotlight. The fact that TFA incites debates about teacher quality and effectiveness is a testament to this fact.

I do not know how many more years I have in the classroom, but I do know that I will never forget my commitment to my students. I will make the world a better place for them by fighting for educational equality.