Experience is qualification

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February 23, 2015

10:56 PM

As a Teach For America corps member in my home state of Delaware, I found many of the critiques in the Nov. 13 editorial by K.J. Moran (“Teach for America: You Can’t Fast-Track Teaching”) to be based on misconceptions rather than the impact and outcomes I see every day in my classroom. As an educator, these misconceptions are troubling, not only because they draw potential applicants away from considering TFA, but also because they distract from the urgent needs of students in low-income communities.

To suggest that TFA corps members lack the experience necessary to be effective teachers devalues the first-hand experiences that many of us bring to the classroom. Like many of the children I teach, I was also a low-income student. Growing up in Prince George’s County, Md. in a predominately black community, I saw students who looked like me achieving amazing things, and I saw students who looked like me getting into trouble. Luckily, along the way I had amazing teachers who saw the potential in all of us.

Later, when I moved to Dover, Del., I started to notice the problem with our country’s education system. I was still a low-income student who excelled in school, but as I got further along I watched as more and more of my black and brown classmates fell through the cracks. These were friends and peers who I knew had the potential to earn better grades than me, become great leaders and make a difference. But often their potential was ignored and their challenges were overlooked or even used as an excuse — they were the reason someone “couldn’t teach them” or “couldn’t work with them.”

This led me to my classroom in Delaware, where I teach today. I am dedicated to making sure that all of my students achieve their potential, and I am privileged to have had the experience of sitting exactly where they do now.

For me and many of my fellow TFA corps members, education is a lifelong commitment. Among TFA alumni, nearly two-thirds continue to work in education, including 11,000 who are classroom teachers. In addition, many work beyond the classroom. Educational inequity didn’t begin there and we cannot expect teachers to solve this injustice on their own. Instead, we need people across the country and in every field working to address the greater challenges students in low-income communities face.

To change the future for students, we must adjust the climate in which our students grow up. This means improving access to health care and nutrition, creating more equitable juvenile justice laws, and increasing access to technology and 21st century careers. This will require advocacy and action across multiple sectors. But isn’t it nice to think that many of these change-makers were once teachers in the classrooms they are fighting to empower?

There is one common concern that I fully understand: Teaching is among the most difficult professions and no experience could fully prepare you. Whether you studied education, engineering or sociology, all teachers must learn on their feet. Each student presents a different challenge and opportunity. As a student at the College of William and Mary, I studied psychology and Africana studies, which gave me an arsenal of skills that I use daily in my classroom — cultural competence, an understanding of brain development and the discipline it takes to excel at a selective school. From there, my summer training and the support of my TFA teacher coach have helped me add to that arsenal, but I’ve learned the most by working directly with students. Each day in my classroom, I use my resources and tools to grow into the teacher I was meant to be and the teacher I need to be for my students.

Looking at the challenges students in low-income communities face, we need educators and leaders from all academic fields and all backgrounds to fight for our students. Teach For America is one pathway to this. As you think about your own path after graduation, don’t let misconceptions prevent you from making an impact. Our students are counting on you.

Chantalle Ashford ’14 teaches chorus and special education at Indian River High School as a Teach For America-Delaware corps member.

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