Teaching for America

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This approaching school year, 105 new Teach for America corps members, five of which were recruited from the University of Texas-Pan American, will join the existing TFA teachers already found throughout 40 Rio Grande Valley schools in 13 school districts.

Teach for America (TFA) is a nonprofit organization that places teachers from all over the U.S. and from diverse backgrounds in schools in low-income communities.  TFA has served students in the Rio Grande Valley for over 20 years.  The Valley’s regional office, located in McAllen, is run by Executive Director Robert Carreon.

“Essentially, we are an organization that is pursuing a vision of providing all students in our country with an excellent education,” said Carreon.  “That’s the driving force behind what we do, that long term vision, and we do that by enlisting a force of leaders who are going to dedicate, both in the immediate-term and in the longer-term, their careers toward providing that excellent education to kids.”

Carreon started his career with TFA in 2003 as a corps member.  He taught high school AP World History at La Joya ISD.  He joined the staff at the regional office he now heads in 2006.

“Through my 10 years in education in South Texas, I have become increasingly convinced that we are on a trajectory to provide every child in our community with an excellent education,” said Carreon.  “Inequities do not have to exist.”

Carreon mentioned TFA is “working to change the reality that in our country today, where students are born, the zip code that they are born in, frankly, is the greatest predictor of the quality of education they will receive and, therefore, the quality of life they will live.”

At the center of TFA’s purpose is its core values of transformational change, leadership, teamwork, diversity, and respect and humility.

Today, more than 16 million children in the U.S. are living in poverty and are not receiving equal educational opportunities as compared to their higher-income peers.  These educational opportunities could potentially help them achieve long-term success for the future.

“When we think about the values and aspirations of our country, of equality, of opportunity, and ‘if you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want,’ the reality is that for these 16 million children growing up in our country, that’s not an opportunity that they currently have,” said Carreon.

According to Carreon, on a national scale, children growing up in low-income communities or in poverty, have approximately a 50 percent high school graduation rate, and only about one in ten of students who do graduate are earning a four-year college degree.

Carreon reports that “of the students who are in the seventh grade, between 2002 and 2004, only 20% of them had achieved an associate’s degree or a credential or a bachelor’s degree by the time they would have been six years out of earning a high school diploma” in the RGV.

“So that’s only one in five students who are in seventh grade who are actually earning any type of degree that we know is critical to them being able to secure a job and provide for their family and have the health and wellbeing that is representative of the American dream,” he said.

To tackle the major issue that is public education with success, TFA recruits from the brightest groups of students from universities across the nation.  TFA has recruiters at universities across the U.S. with the purpose of driving applications from students who meet the organization’s application’s prerequisites.  The majority of their applicants are students who have just or are about to complete a bachelor’s degree, but they have also been seeing more post-graduate and graduate school students.

“Essentially, our recruiters travel to universities, and they’re responsible for meeting with the top leaders in those schools, doing classroom presentations, and basically driving applications on those campuses for people who are interested in not just becoming a teacher, per say, but actually becoming part of a movement that you start by teaching,” said Carreon.

This “movement” Carreon refers to begins, but is not limited to, the classroom.  Some TFA corps members continue teaching after their two-year sign is up with the organization, while others make the move to school administration.  Other TFA corps members go into different professional fields, but according to Carreon, “ultimately, what [TFA is] looking for is someone who is saying “for the rest of my life, I will be working to ensure that children in low-income areas get the educational opportunities that they deserve,” regardless of which field they work in after they have taught with TFA.

“…We recruit, train, and support outstanding individuals to teach in high-need public schools and become lifelong leaders in expanding educational opportunity,” said Carreon.  “Through this work, we aim to be part of building a new generation of leaders committed to solving the problem of educational inequity.

One of the teachers currently working to expand educational opportunities to children in the RGV community is TFA Corps Member Jonathan Brown, originally from southeastern Ohio, who attended Mt. Vernon Nazarene University in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where he majored in Spanish and minored in Journalism and Education.  Brown learned about TFA through a college professor.

“I was interested in the program and resonated with their beliefs that all students could succeed, regardless of any identity markers like socioeconomic status or race and their creed, and to relentlessly work toward giving an equitable education to all students everywhere,” said Brown.

Brown works with first-year U.S. immigrants who are learning Spanish.  When asked about his goal with TFA, he echoed TFA’s core value of transformational change.

“At the beginning of the school year, people told me that a lot of my students wouldn’t complete the full year and would move back to their home country,” said Brown.  “The impact I hope to have on my students is to instill the belief that, even in mistakes or failure, we can still grow and learn as long as we are willing to put forth the work and effort.”

Corps members attend an intensive five-week course, which is held in Houston, for corps members who will teach in the Rio Grande Valley region. There they participate in seminars on teaching and are paired with a master teacher in the area to teach summer school.  Throughout the five week course, casually referred to as “institute,” corps members are observed and guided by veteran teachers.

“The mixture of the classes and the hands-on experience was essential for me, because I was able to take the skills and advice on developing relationships with my students and apply this all directly into a classroom setting during institute,” said Brown.

Although Brown minored in education while in college, he says TFA taught him what is at the core of education.

“Although my college courses could teach me things like how to build a unit plan or when to give positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement,” said Brown, “ it was Teach For America that taught me to go steps further by inspiring me to hold my students to consistently high standards and relentlessly believe in—and encourage—my students to succeed.”

Another TFA corps member is Rio Grande Valley native Jacqueline Muniz.  After graduating from Donna High School, where she was inspired by a TFA teacher, Mr. Chris Walters, Muniz shared:

“As a former student of an inspiring TFA teacher that served as my role model, I truly believe in the impact a TFA teacher can have, and thus, the impact I can have in my own community,” said Muniz.”  With TFA, I have the opportunity to become a part of a movement that is not only taking place in the RGV, but across the country.”

Muniz attended the University of Texas-Austin where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government.  Her former TFA teacher inspired her to pursue a law degree, but while in college, she realized she wanted to make an impact through education.

“Education is vital to ensure that we solve the world’s most pressing problems, and as an educator in the RGV, I know I am leading my students to the path of their dreams and preparing them to lead the world to be a better place,” said Muniz.  “That is why I believe teaching is one of the most rewarding and noble professions.”

Muniz models TFA’s core value of leadership by explaining how she hopes to inspire her students.

“I want for them to pursue to know the world better and experience first-hand what the world has to offer, in order to understand and act on the issues that our community, our nation, and the world face,” said Muniz.  “That will lead our students to challenge themselves to act upon any injustice they see and to defy any obstacle they feel may be obstructing their path to their own goals.”

Muniz will begin teaching in the RGV this fall and is looking forward to adding to the knowledge she gained at institute.

“Although I have learned more than I ever expected during my time at institute, we never stop learning, and I am sure that I will still learn a lot from my students and my colleagues as the school year progresses,” said Muniz.  “Nevertheless, I feel ready to start teaching and keeping my students engaged in my content.  My training has given me enough and more to reflect on and to keep developing as a teacher as a prepare for my first year.”

After institute, and while they teach, corps members continue receiving TFA support and training for two years.  An instructional coach supervises them and provides feedback about their teaching skills.

According to Carreon, in February 2012, Edvance Research conducted an evaluation of TFA corps members and alumni impact on student achievement in the state of Texas.

“The study bolsters the findings of previous research and indicates that Teach For America teachers have a positive impact on student achievement,” said Carreon.

Diversity plays a major role in the growing success in the academic classroom and community.

“While we believe great teachers come from all backgrounds, we also know that teachers who share the backgrounds of our students have the opportunity for profound additional impact,” said Carreon about TFA’s diversity.

According to Carreon, more than half of TFA’s 2013 corps members “identify as people of color, and just about half received Pell Grants as college students,” while “just over 20 percent are from the RGV specifically.”

“No matter where corps members are from, they commit to giving kids in our city an excellent education when they join the RGV corps,” said Carreon.  “Each one of our teachers works hard to build positive relationships with their neighbors, colleagues, students, and families to become active members of their communities.

Carreon’s knowledge about TFA’s educational equity movement has only strengthened and expanded from when he first started with the organization.  His goals for education in the RGV model TFA’s long-term educational goals.

“I have come from an initial understanding of the work of Teach For America being me and the 4 other corps members on our campus in La Joya to today, where I have the privilege of contributing to conversations with our nearly 300 corps members and alumni, our partner principals and superintendents, business leaders, philanthropic investors, elected officials, parents, church groups, and above all students.  And one thing is resoundingly clear: the will for a great system of education in South Texas is strong, and the capabilities of our communities to realize that will is growing.”Teq