Surviving Teach for America: What I Learned from the Corps

About Yoshana Jones

Yoshana B. Jones, Esq. is an educator and Professional Learning Facilitator with Fulton County Schools. She leads the professional development of educators lead PLCs at Westlake High School. For the 2013-2014 school year, Coordinate Algebra students experienced at 11% gain on the state standardized test. Ms. Jones is committed to educational equity for all students. She is the Chair of the new PLC Development team, which is dedicated to providing opportunities for teachers to learn and grow as professionals. In addition to her work with students, Ms. Jones is the Owner of Good Samaritan Apparel, LLC. Good Samaritan Apparel is a Christian t-shirt company that hopes to spread love, joy, and the Word. Ms. Jones writes inspirational blog posts that encourages Christian believers to remain full of faith.
courtesy TeachForAmerica

courtesy TeachForAmerica

As I just finished my two-year commitment with Teach for America, I cannot help but think back on this journey I have just completed.  Never in a million years did I think I would be in front of a classroom teaching children.  Never in a billion years did I think teaching would have such a profound impact on how I think about myself and view the world.  Surviving Teach for America is more than just achieving alumni status or receiving the AmeriCorps educational award.  Surviving Teach for America means that I committed to improving the lives of my students and my community.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do not have a sappy story about TFA.  Sometimes I really liked the Corps and what it stands for.  Other times, I seriously questioned my decision to join the organization and the teaching profession as a whole – especially since I am a lawyer.

I absolutely love the practice of law.  It is a thinking person’s profession.  But, I also love learning and education.  As a child, school was my saving grace.  My parents did not have the financial means to put my sister and I in sports or dance classes when we were much younger.  However, books and learning were always free.  So, I spent a lot of time reading and applying what I learned in the classroom.  I was a whiz kid in school.

Joining Teach for America was not really a hard decision for me, even though I was not a typical applicant.  I was about to graduate law school in a few months.  I was 25 years old at the time.  And, I was not joining the Corps because I did not know what I wanted to do in life.  I was going to be an attorney.  I wanted to join the Corps because I was drawn to the major civil rights issue that Teach for America and many individuals are battling – the lack of quality education for all students.

I remember receiving my acceptance email from TFA a few weeks shy of my law school graduation.  I was excited for about 2.5 seconds until I saw the content area I was assigned to teach – mathematics.  I was told that I was placed in this subject because it is a high-need area.  After praying about it, I decided to accept the offer to join the Corps.  I was always great at math and took a couple math courses in college.  So, I decided to spend part of the summer brushing up on my math skills.

I survived the TFA Summer Institute, which is the summer training program for incoming corps members.  I met a lot of great people there that I am still connected to.  As a the first day of school of my first year of teaching quickly approached, I felt less and less nervous.  I thought, “I have the support of Teach for America.  I will be fine.”  That statement is both true and false.

Teach for America has a lot of resources available to Corps Members.  Whether it is lesson plans, assessments, or someone in your content area, there is a way to get the resources you need.

But, I wish I did not rely so much on TFA during my first year of teaching.  I thought that lesson plans, unit plans, and assessments would be one-click away.  (They were actually one-click away but they were not aligned to my content area.  I had to create a lot from scratch.)  Furthermore, I did not receiving the mentoring that was promised to all TFA Corps Members.  I was good at teaching.  I had great classroom management and organizational skills.  But, since I was a good teacher, my TFA mentor did not visit my classroom as much.  Some may see this as a good thing.  But, at the end of the day, I was still a first year teacher.  I still needed support.

On the outside, I looked like a happy teacher.  However, I was very miserable.  I had a lot on my plate at the time.  I was studying for the bar exam, working full-time (which is a no-no while studying for the bar), and trying to figure out whether I wanted to continue in teaching.  In the midst of all this internal angst, I switched schools.  This was the biggest blessing in disguise because at my new school, I met Fran Warren, the founder and owner of The Educator’s Room!  (And, I did pass the bar the first time.  So, I felt like I had options should I choose to leave the teaching profession.)

I decided to stay for a second year and I was determined to make it better.  I was going to have control of my teaching future and develop this new thing that Fran taught me – my “teacher brand.”  I was not going to place my teacher development in anyone else’s hands.  Not the district.  Not Teach for America.  This did not mean that I would not use the district and Teach for America as resources.  It simply meant that I was going to be the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.

I made an effort to attend Teach for America’s Corps Member professional development sessions that they hosted.  Unlike my first year, I actually went to the sessions.  Some sessions were extremely great and got me excited about the work of Teach for America.  Other sessions were not so great and did not pique my interest.

During my second year, I still did not receive the personalized mentoring from TFA.  But, that is okay because I sought my own mentoring relationships, especially from former Corps Members.  One of my good friends at my school just completed TFA.  I learned so much from her about organizing, planning and goal-setting.

Being a Corps Member with TFA is a unique experience that I would not change for anything in the world.  Here are the top five things that I have learned as a member of Teach for America.

1.  Always have a plan – Success starts with writing down a plan, following the plan, and modifying the plan when it does not work.  Set benchmarks and goals and see it come into fruition.

2.  Collaborate with others – No one operates on an island.  When cannot make it alone.

3.  Develop your craft – Whether you are a teacher, lawyer, or homemaker, always seek opportunities to develop your craft.

4.  Find mentors – Seek the advice of those who came before you.  Listen to them and learn from their mistakes.

5.  Develop your teacher brand – Your teacher brand is what makes you unique in the marketplace of educators.  Know what skills will set you apart.

I do not yet know where my teaching career will lead me.  But, I know that I learned a lot over the last two years.  I learned about perseverance, hope, endurance, faith, imagination, compassion, and, most importantly, integrity.

I don’t know how many years I will be in the classroom.  I don’t know whether I want to continue teaching math.  I don’t know what role I will play in the education movement.

But, I do know one thing – I survived Teach for America!

 

 

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By | 2016-11-01T14:28:53+00:00 July 2nd, 2013|Featured, From the Front Lines|4 Comments

About the Author:

Yoshana B. Jones, Esq. is an educator and Professional Learning Facilitator with Fulton County Schools. She leads the professional development of educators lead PLCs at Westlake High School. For the 2013-2014 school year, Coordinate Algebra students experienced at 11% gain on the state standardized test. Ms. Jones is committed to educational equity for all students. She is the Chair of the new PLC Development team, which is dedicated to providing opportunities for teachers to learn and grow as professionals. In addition to her work with students, Ms. Jones is the Owner of Good Samaritan Apparel, LLC. Good Samaritan Apparel is a Christian t-shirt company that hopes to spread love, joy, and the Word. Ms. Jones writes inspirational blog posts that encourages Christian believers to remain full of faith.

4 Comments

  1. Lee Underwood July 2, 2013 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Thanks for your two year commitment. You can now go back to your “thinking persons” career. I’ve been teaching in an urban high school for 7 years nows, and, looking back, my first two years were a blur. How can any teacher expect to generate a significant amount of pedagogical consistency and experience in two years? Teaching children and young adults should never be a means to an end or another notch on the belt of career climbers. This is where Teach for America has it all wrong. Teaching IS the end, and it’s the most important job there is. This essay is a perfect window into how the rest of the nation views education: lacking serious scholarship, overpaid babysitting, not worth the effort, a fallback plan (“never in a billion years”). In fact, there is not one mention of Yoshana Jones’ relationship with the students. It’s all about her! One of my greatest moments in teaching is meeting a student as a ninth grader and, four years later, shaking his or her hand as they walk across the stage to receive that diploma. Or having a former student come back to teach a lesson they really liked when they were my student. Or bettering that unit by adding a critical piece of literature that connects perfectly with students living in the inner city. These are the moments in teaching that matter. Two years is a lame duck session.

    The students may have really liked Yoshana, and perhaps she made an impact. But when that sheen wears off, the students are right back to where they started, and Teach for America participants get to walk away. If they really want to make lasting effects on education, make the commitment 5 years. Hopefully they will see how intellectually rewarding teaching can be.

    • Yoshana Jones July 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

      The purpose of this article was to examine my relationship with Teach for America as an organization, not my teaching experience as a whole. And because it is not only about me, I will continue to contribute to the teaching profession and educational equity as both an educator and an education lawyer. Because I have been in the classroom, especially in an urban area, I believe I am better able to fight for the rights of teachers, parents, and students, as opposed to a legislator who cannot intimately relate to the issues in public education.

      One of the main issues with detractors of Teach for America is that they assume that corps members are going to automatically walk away from education when the sheen wears off. People can, and many do, contribute to education in many ways outside of the classroom. So, instead comparing how many years a teacher remains in the profession, we should be uplifting one another as we fight for our students.

      My first two years in education was definitely not a lame duck session. I am not sure what others have done with their two years. My students love me, the staff and parents respect me, and I have helped my students develop as young adults, not just as math students.

      I do not need a thank you for my two year commitment to Teach for America because I am returning for a third year while practicing law. It is okay to have multiple interests and skill sets as an educator. This will only benefit my students.

      Do not assume that a person, regardless of their affiliation with TFA, cannot contribute to helping children unless they are in the classroom for five years.

      Let’s focus on the children. Think the best of fellow educators. And, never assume we know it all, despite how many years of teaching we have under our belt. Assume the best instead of judging. I don’t think that would be a good example for our students.

  2. HillaryE July 3, 2013 at 8:57 am - Reply

    Thank you for the clarification of your motives Yoshana- I have had negative experiences with TFA members in the past, and your article did come across as from a “career climber” looking for a ‘belt notch.’ I wish every politician out there also had some teaching experience… I just don’t wish it on the students. I have to say that I’m still uncertain as to the main idea of this article. What exactly is your relationship with TFA?

  3. kfitton July 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    I have to agree with the others here…I’ve worked with TFA members before and generally I haven’t been very impressed by what I’ve seen. Most of the members I’ve seen do show a lot of caring when it comes to the students but have massive gaping holes in knowledge of educational theory, educational professionalism, and doing anything outside the TFA prescribed method of doing things. I saw TFAers moved from school to school and I saw the worst of political ladder-climbers and social clique behaviors. In talking to many TFA members they fully admitted that TFA is more of a political organization than an outfit for training teachers and that the teaching part isn’t even the goal. One only needs to look at their mission statement to figure that one out. While I’m sure your individual experience has been different, as a whole the TFA organization is a disservice to education in general in my opinion as a traditionally licensed full time teacher who has taught full time in a low income/high minority school for more than two years. If people were serious about building up our teaching ranks, TFA isn’t the way to do it…districts should be partnering with universities and developing long term programs that properly support and encourage regular licensing as opposed to alternative licensure which data is showing is NOT providing better educational opportunities for students.

    Assuming the best in my mind is doublespeak for let’s just ignore these gaping holes of reality because people don’t want to make the hard decisions to reform our true problems in education and would rather divert resources and attention towards Band-Aid solutions that don’t change anything but look nice on the surface (NCLB, RTTP, etc).

    Until TFA starts addressing the real problems we are facing in education (lack of community support, attendance issues, student/parent accountability, political disdain for education, corporate infiltration of education, and the continual decline of a social safety net) they are nothing more than a sham organization in my opinion and I think a lot of other professional educators agree.

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