Alumni Induction is a milestone for most CMs, symbolizing two years of hard work, much of it thankless, some of it agonizing, and all of it memorable, and ushering in the opportunities, whatever and wherever they may be, to once more branch out into the world and use the lessons of one’s TFA experience to build one’s sense of purpose.
Few CMs, after all, finish their TFA commitments not having seen a problem that, as David Brooks explains, “summons their life.” Public education, and everything about it that is not working, is that problem. For many CMs, it sure as hell is a call to action, a purpose-builder, a problem for which they’ll seek solutions for the rest of their lives.
Indeed, TFA is as much, if not more, about what CMs do after they are done with their two year commitment. So what’s next? Last Thursday, the TFA DC Region Alumni Induction gave us an opportunity to synthesize reflections on our experience as a collective and ponder that very question.
I hadn’t thought much about the event’s significance before it happened; in retrospect, I appreciate the “official” transition from CM to alum. I know what I’m doing next, and I know most of my friends know too: something to do with education.
The most memorable part of the evening was the CM speech, given by Tracy MacKenzie. She, a middle school special education teacher in DCPS, offered her reflections on her experience, comparing teaching to acting, that field with which she, as a theater major, was most comfortable, and urging us to continue to ensure an excellent education for all.
Tracy’s reflection was compelling, particularly because she cleverly compared the art of teaching to the art of acting (an analogy that I’ve thought, all along, was spot-on, but one I’d never seen talked about anywhere), but also because her execution revealed her talents as an actor, as someone possessing the ability to enthrall an audience and make it whoop, tear up and ponder.
Here is the full text of her speech (identifying information removed):
This fall, during a [XYZ] Middle School career fair, I was asked by one of my eighth grade students what I am going to be when I grow up.
“Well, D.,” I said trying to find the truth in my answer, “I am grown up. “
“And is this what you want to be?” she inquired.
I paused. I thought.
“Yes,” I replied.
Satisfied, D. nodded and turned away to peruse her options for when she too is a grown up. Less than satisfied and slightly confused, I stood there and perused my career options. Was this my career? Is this what I want to be? And most importantly, am I really a grown up?
Before my senior year in college, I never dreamed of being a teacher. As a theater major at Northwestern University, I dreamed of moving to New York and had my fingers crossed that maybe, just maybe, I would have a job with benefits. Teaching was a career path that, like for many of you, I first considered over a cup of coffee in my student center while a TFA recruitment director told me how I could make a difference in the lives of children.
But something I heard in that conversation struck a chord because I was wooed out of the theater and in to the classroom. I realized that the opportunity to join Teach For America here was too great to pass up. Public school in DC is the Broadway of Education, and I wasn’t missing this show for anything.
Flash forward 5 months, a college degree and a few weeks of dress rehearsals in Philadelphia later and here I was in the fall of 2009 ready to make my oh-so-grand entrance onto the stage of my DC classroom. Somehow, while trying to figure out how to teach fractions to students who would rather throw their calculator out of a third story window (which they did), I quickly discovered that I had landed the greatest acting gig of all time. For 6 hours a day, I perform. And this part is one of the toughest roles ever written: a teacher. For the past two years performing in this role I have never fought harder for an audience, been more pleased by their undivided attention, and I have never cared more about reviews. Students can be the toughest critics. Yet, they can also be the best fans. And of course, no acting gig would be complete without a few fans asking for your autograph. And they do, by the dozens, asking for MY autograph before they can go to the bathroom, the water fountain or the nurse.
But teaching, like acting, is not just about performing. You must work relentlessly behind the scenes to prepare for “being on stage.” As you are all well aware, our current roles require several hours of planning, grading, re-teaching, analyzing data, taking graduate classes, and Professional Development Saturdays, before we are stage ready. Although we know this ‘behind the scenes’ work is critically important, our audience may never know what or how much we do to prepare. That is part of our teacher magic. Unfortunately, our audiences are eager to share their opinions when we haven’t rehearsed for our role.
For the past two years, I have been prepping and performing daily at [XYZ] Middle School in Southeast D.C. As a special education teacher, I taught 7th grade math and looped with my students to teach 8th grade English. Although I get the occasional “Wait, Ms. MacKenzie – how can you teach both math and English? Does that mean you are extra smart?” (To which I smile and reply, of course), I feel privileged to have spent an extra year with all of my students. I have seen them grow from shy, distracted 12 year olds into confident, energetic 8th graders.
This growth has been particularly astounding for my student R. Last fall, she was severely truant attending 7th grade math class about twice per week. She struggled immensely in math and would cry during tests. After one test, I asked R. to stay after. She told me about her challenges in school, the way numbers get jumbled in her head and how she is afraid to speak in the classroom. Together, we developed new strategies to help her learn math, new systems for communication, and new procedures to ensure R. was present every day. By the end of the year, R. was attending class daily and was near mastery on the 7th grade standards. This year, R. has truly blossomed. She has become a leader in our class, facilitates book discussions and just wrote a 5-paragraph essay. When she asked me to write her recommendation to high school, it was I who cried.
Today, after two years of growing together, both my students and I are at a crossroads. Just as we are becoming Teach for America alumni, my students are preparing to become [XYZ] Middle School alumni. Nine days from now, I will cheer my heart out as my 65 8th graders walk across the [XYZ] stage. I will watch, for the first time in many years, as [XYZ] students go off to School without Walls, Banneker, McKinley Tech and Duke Ellington. As educators, we have all helped inspire, motivate and prepare our students for the next stage of their paths to being grown-ups, a path filled with tough decisions and much adversity, yet for many, is now brimming with newly realized potential.
We all believe that every child deserves the opportunity to decide for himself what he wants to be when he grows up: be it an athlete, a chef, a business person, a politician, an actress or EVEN an educator! Yet to reach those goals, dreams alone are not enough. Teachers, schools and districts must supply all students in all districts in this country with the skills and knowledge necessary to graduate from high school, to go to college and to reach those goals.
We joined Teach For America because of our belief that every child deserves an excellent education. But the problem we’ve all experienced in these past two years is that still, not every child is receiving the education they deserve. For every R., there is another student, one who has not met his or her potential, one who has not had a breakthrough, one who has not made gains that will put them on track to achieve their goals. So how can we reach every child? How can we as Teach For America alumni ensure that all students have these crucial skills and knowledge that we know they need to succeed? What is our responsibility?
Today, I think again about what D. asked me at the career fair: “Is being a teacher what you want to be?” Now, I can say with confidence, yes. Today, I would tell D. how I am going to continue teaching in Washington D.C. next year and will keep fighting for equal education for the children of our nation’s capitol. I would thank her for helping me decide what I want to be “when I grow up.”
I also think about what each of you would tell my student about your “grown up career”. This room is filled with future principals, lawyers, teachers, doctors, superintendents and perhaps even, as Emily Barton has said, the President of the United States.
No matter what path you follow – you no doubt have been forever shaped, strengthened and changed by the role you have played for the past two years. Just as our students have grown, so have we. And as you depart to new states, new countries and possibly new careers, think about your classroom, your successes, and your failures. Think about what drove to you back to your school every day before the sun rose and kept you there until after the sun set.
Think about how our lives will forever be influenced by the Teach For America experience. Think about how no one in this room will ever close the door on education. This experience connects us to more than 20,000 Teach For America alumni, and hundreds and thousands of children. I urge you, no matter what you do next – whether in or out of the classroom – continue your role as advocates for public education. Whether studying law to impact future education policies or stealing reams of copy paper from your fancy New York office to send to my classroom, find your way to stay involved and keep fighting. We have already made – and can continue for the rest of our grown up lives – to make a difference in the lives of children.
And I wouldn’t be a true English teacher if I didn’t quote an author at least once. In that vein, Haruki Murakami writes:
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm is all about.”
Well, Fellow 2009 D.C. Region corps members, as you slowly emerge from this two- year storm know that we have more than survived it. We have faced the storm head on and together have changed its course, and like Murakami says, we will never be the same.