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Passing Through or Coming Home?


About a week ago, I read about two new teachers as they anticipated their first day in the DC school system.

Alex thought about volunteering for the Peace Corps, but joined up for Teach for America instead. He cites Michelle Rhee, the TFA graduate who went on to establish The New Teacher Project, media magnet Chancellor of District of Columbia as an iconic figure. As he prepares to teach eighth-grade science to special education students he said, "I hope I'm ready."

Twenty-one year-old Jamila is also a recent graduate of the five week TFA boot camp. She is considering school psychology as a career and feels that spending some time teaching special education will help her figure out why minority children, especially African American boys, seem to wind up in special education classrooms. She is confident that her university background in sociology and psychology and her TFA summer experiences are sufficient preparation to meet the needs of eighth grade special education students. Jamila said "I'm ready to go. The challenges will come."

I've never met these new teachers, but they appear to be bright, articulate, and highly motivated. TFA Corp members are noted for their content knowledge, confidence, and no excuses mindset. After running the gauntlet of a highly desirable entry to the world or work and a high intensity indoctrination and training program, they are expected to commit to working as many hours as necessary and do whatever is necessary to raise student achievement. They will either live and breathe teaching or drop out. I wish them well and hope their enthusiasm, energy and idealism will sustain them during their two year commitment to the classroom as they continue to plan their long term career.

This week I've been working closely with two other new teachers. They are career switchers who went back to school to earn certification. Amy will be teaching eighth grade Language Arts and brings real-world writing experience as a marketing consultant and a free lance journalist. She's been substitute teaching and attending classes at night to become certified. On Tuesday morning, as Amy faces her first period class, her husband will be sending their middle child off to his first day of school. She said, "I'm anxious because on Tuesday, I am entrusting shared responsibility for my child's intellectual, social, and emotional development to another teacher. I understand both the privilege and obligation that comes with this job, and I owe it my students to be the same kind of teacher I want for my own children."

Harmony is also a 30-something mother of three and her husband, like Amy's, will be putting a five year old on the bus to kindergarten on Tuesday morning. Harmony didn't plan to be a teacher either; but stints as an education research assistant at the University of Arizona and the University of West Florida led her to realize that teaching science is the place where her knowledge, skills and personal values intersect. Was it difficult to do the coursework while juggling the challenges and responsibilities of being a Marine officer's wife with three small children? Yes; but Harmony says "I have a passion for this work; and I know being here, in the classroom, is where I'm suppose to be."

These new teachers are bright, articulate, and highly motivated. Career switchers bring real world work, established workplace skills, and confidence that comes with maturity. They have run the gauntlet of juggled family, work and graduate school schedules, financing their own preparation, and competing for limited teaching positions. They have the organizational and multitasking skills that prepare them for the classroom. And, while they will need to balance work hours with their family, home, and community responsibilities, they will figure out how to do what is necessary to impact student learning. I wish them well and hope their enthusiasm, determination, and idealism will sustain them as they commit to invest in a long term career in the classroom.

So, we have four new teachers who are headed into the classroom with eighth graders for the first time. In 23 years, I've taught a couple of thousand eighth graders and I've also been the parent of two eighth graders, so I know that while eighth graders may look and sound like resilient young adults, everyone one of them is a fragile, impressionable, and unique work in progress. I have a professional responsibility to impact the learning of every student who walks into my room, but I also have a moral responsibility to remember that every young person who walks through my door is somebody's baby -- teetering on the verge of adulthood. Either that parent has the same kind of hopes, dreams and concerns that I had for my own 13 year old or that parent is too overwhelmed by life to be aware and invested in this critical and treacherous transition.

In no way do I intend to disparage, discourage or disrespect those two young TFA corps members who have taken on incredibly challenging teaching assignments as they explore the teaching profession through Teach for America. But I have to wonder why I don't read more about teachers like Amy and Harmony who arrive with experience as well as knowledge, who temper their enthusiasm with self reflection, and who see the classroom as their professional destination rather than a stepping stone on a long term career path.

Note: References to and comments by TFA novice, Alex, that appeared in the original printThe Washington Post story do not appear in the on-line version.

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