Saturday, September 1, 2012

What Teach for America Gave Me

I meant to write this all summer. In fact, I meant to write this before I left San Antonio, Texas--my Teach for America home for 2 years after college. But for some reason, I just never did until I happened to see this article on the NYTimes setting up the debate about the effectiveness of TFA.

When I joined Teach for America in 2010 in the San Antonio Charter Corps, I knew I would be leaving for medical school in 2 years. I knew that TFA was notoriously difficult because of the high expectations placed on its corps members and the situation they were placed in.

Coming right out of college, wide-eyed and idealistic, it's a bit of a shock to go into a classroom prepared to pull a "Stand and Deliver" moment, only to be completely unsure of what to do when a student starts yelling racial slurs across the room, and another picks up a chair looking to throw it.

But how could I enter the world of medicine, saying I wanted to effect a change in health policy and work with the underserved population, when my experiences were primarily in volunteering? I did Teach for America because I knew it would give me perspective on the social, economic, cultural, and academic impacts of American poverty. In return, I could provide 2 years of my dedicated, unrelenting effort to my students as a science teacher.

I was provided about 6 weeks of in-class training, and then training throughout the school year about being at teacher. Most people, especially those who did semester or year long in-class training, gawk at that. How can you possible learn to drive an effective classroom in that amount of time? The answer is simple: you can't. I didn't, and I doubt anyone does. But what it gave me was a template of how to prepare lesson plans, focus on academic achievement, and set high standards for my students. More importantly, it slapped the wide-eyed innocence right out of me. It showed me what I would have to do, gave me the tools on how to handle it, and sent me off--trembling from excitement and a healthy dose of fear of failure.

But that's why Teach For America has a rigorous selection process. It's not all a numbers game: it's about leadership. After all -- what are you if not the leader, commander, and director of your classroom? Though it is not fool proof, it does effectively recruit people who are goal-driven, hard workers and will not give up at the first, second, third, or fourteenth failure.

I gave everything I could to my students over the 2 years that I worked for San Antonio Independent School District. I promised them I would teach them Biology, and I did. I promised them I would get them above and beyond passing the state Biology exam, and for most, I did. I promised them I would never give up on them, and I didn't. People often ask me if I feel that I made an actual impact on my students' lives--and I'm honestly not sure. I can tell you that there are students that will never remember, and students that will always remember me. I can tell that I had the opportunity to work with children to take them from knowing very little about Biology, to being conversational in basic Biology by the end of the year. I can tell them that I made students feel, and therefore be, smart. But a lasting impact? Only time will tell.

But my time with them gave me more. From an educational standpoint, TFA has made an education advocate out of me for life. I have internalized the impact that schools can have on students even when communities and families are struggling. I understand what it is like to be a teacher in an over-crowded underfunded classroom. And I know now what it's like to want to help your students so badly, but face a seemingly insurmountable sociocultural and political barriers. Education is no longer the great equalizer in our country, I see that clearer than ever, and I will work to ensure that changes.

From a medical standpoint, starting my future-physician career, I am more aware of how the world works. I can not only identify the socioeconomic determinants of health and health care delivery, but I have seen and internalized them. Two years gave me the time and experience to look at my school community broadly and learn why my students and their families make some of the choices they do, both helpful and harmful. I believe it has given me the beginnings of insight into what could be implementable and effective in these communities to better health outcomes. Or I could be wrong, but at the very least it has fueled my desire to learn more and push my career in medicine towards community health care and closing our health outcomes gap.

Do I think Teach for America is the answer to our educational woes? No, it's a very big band-aid on the wound that is our bleeding education system. I never took TFA for the answer--but rather a program that will push people who normally wouldn't be interested in education (either because of the extraordinarily low pay or the lack of respect the profession can engenders, or both) and change that,  making them more aware of the problem. TFA alums, no matter where we go, either staying in education or moving on to a different career, will always have our students and our experience in the back of our minds, consciously or subconsciously influencing our actions.

So back to my main point--what TFA has given me. It's given me a direction. A direction I was tentatively leaning towards after college, but now am barreling towards in medical school. A direction I can only hope will be worth the high monetary investment in my teacher training and classroom, and will help to shape the communities I was privileged enough to work in for 2 years.