Teach For America affords alumni chance to give back

AddThis

In June, Charles Graham Jr. will leave his job at an Austin law firm and move almost 2,000 miles to Philadelphia to embark on a new teaching career. Graham, who received his government degree in December, will spend his first summer as a UT alumnus training for Teach For America. According to Teach For America, a program that signs recent college graduates to two-year teaching commitments at underprivileged schools, more of the program’s teachers came from UT than any of the other 630 institutions in 2010. Graham said he is excited to be a part of such a competitive institution, which accepts about 4,500 of its 46,000 applicants. “I always said that I wouldn’t be a teacher,” he said. “When I decided to be a government major, people would ask, ‘What are you going to do, become a government teacher?’ and I always answered no.” Graham is not unusual — one in six of the program’s participants say they never considered education before joining the Teach For America corps. He said he is looking forward to learning about how to improve the nation’s education system and hopes to take his teaching experience with him long after his two-year commitment. “My long-term goal is to work in education policy, and I saw this program as a way to get in the classroom and see some of the problems of the education system firsthand,” he said. “I saw Teach For America as an opportunity to give back and reach future generations.“ Graham plans to attend graduate school after his two-year commitment ends, which some critics of the program argue could be problematic. Some criticize the program because its participants leave the classroom after their commitment is up and pursue other careers, said assistant education professor Julian Heilig. “In its initial conception, it’s a fantastic idea, because they are trying to get high-quality teachers to students that our nation has left behind,” Heilig said. “The problem is that they attract teachers to those schools, but they can’t keep them there.“ Heilig argued the program functions as a “temporary agency” and “perpetuates the cycle” of underqualified teachers in underprivileged schools. “I think the criticisms would melt away if their members would make five-year commitments instead of two, but this is just a stopover for most kids,” he said. A 2008-09 Urban Institute study shows that corps members have positively impacted student achievement as first- and second-year teachers, said program spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock. “Our alumni, inspired by their two-year teaching experience, become lifelong leaders in a variety of professional fields in their effort to expand opportunities for kids growing up in low-income communities,” Gastrock said. Etherial Edetan, a UT alumna and current corps member in Atlanta, has taught kindergarten and first grade since joining the program in 2009. In May, she will spend her final days in the classroom but not in the field of education. “I’m going to continue working in education in some kind of way, but I don’t think I can be the strongest advocate of education by staying in the classroom,” she said. “I think I need to go outside of the classroom to make effective improvements.” Graham said he hopes to instill “confidence and a love for learning” into his Philadelphia elementary students. The program will provide him with weeks of training, preparation for his teacher certification test and relocation funds. Then he will be off to his classroom. “I know it’s going to be a hard job, and I think that if I can do this, then I can do anything,” Graham said. “I’m not going to shy away from the challenge. Actually, I’m looking forward to it.”