The independent news organization of Duke University

Why Teach For America?

guest column

As alumni of both Duke and Teach For America, we’re writing in response to the recent editorial, “Why Not Teach For America?” While the editorial was filled with inaccurate information about Teach For America’s program, mission and impact, the most uninformed assertion is that current Duke students would be best served to take their talents elsewhere.

As three of the nearly 500 Duke alumni who have chosen to join Teach For America since it started, we’ve witnessed firsthand the powerful impact of corps members and alumni. What makes Teach For America unique among national service programs is the scope and ambition of its mission: to boldly reimagine the future of our nation by enlisting remarkable, diverse leaders who commit to effecting change in schools, school systems, and in every sector and field that shapes them.

So we wanted to share our personal stories that dispel the myths about Teach For America, and illuminate the collective impact of corps members and alums: one of us from the corps, and two as alumni from the legal world and from the classroom.

Elisa Oliver, 2015 Duke graduate: “As a second-year corps member, teaching high school math in Henderson, North Carolina, but living in Durham, I have a foot in both worlds. The critiques lofted by The Chronicle’s editorial board were the same criticisms I heard three years ago as a senior studying public policy.  For me, the more I studied education policy, the more I felt like I needed to be in the classroom, gaining an understanding of inequity in practice, rather than in theory. I started making a plan to become a teacher starting my sophomore year, but chose to forego the traditional path to continue my policy studies while adding an education minor.

I ultimately came to Teach For America because my education heroes—folks like Mike Feinberg and the veteran teachers I worked alongside while interning in schools – all began their careers at Teach For America. Now that I’m a teacher, I’ve had to confront my own privilege in ways I never had to as a student at Duke. I have become part of a community that has pushed me to see outside myself, and I've learned to see the world through the eyes of my students. I will forever be an advocate for my students, but nothing makes me more proud than watching them become advocates for themselves and their community. So when I think about the mission of Duke—knowledge in the service of society—I can’t think of a better way to live out that mission than through Teach For America.”

Carlos Marquez, Duke Law 2017: “As a 3L at Duke Law, my students are never far from my mind. Teaching a class of English language learners in Houston, I saw firsthand the struggles of students who lack access to education, health care, and civic engagement because of language barriers and discrimination. As a Hispanic male teacher, I was able to forge meaningful connections with my students and share stories of my own father, who had come to the States in high school from Ecuador. And I am proud to say that after two years teaching the same group of students, in both English and Spanish, my students demonstrated the highest academic growth in my school and were in the top tier of academic growth in all of Houston.

Today, my passion for fighting for educational equity and the skills I learned in the classroom fuel my work. This semester I’m taking Education Law, where I bring valuable insight from my time in the classroom to the law. Outside of class, I became involved with the Duke Law Clinics. Last spring, I worked in the Children’s Law Clinic where I represented families and students in special education and Social Security disability cases. This fall, I am working in the Community Enterprise Clinic providing pro bono legal work to community non-profits. When I think about the complex, systemic web of inequities in our nation—from immigration law to healthcare policy to educational access—I know that although I have left the classroom, I will continue to fight and advocate for these issues as an attorney.”

Azaria Verdin, Duke MPP 2014: “After four years of teaching at my Teach For America placement school, also in Henderson, I decided to pursue a public policy graduate degree at Duke to take on the systemic injustices our students face in schools—from inequitable funding to excessive testing to lack of course options. Although I was studying alongside bright, motivated fellow grad students, I became frustrated that issues of race and class were noticeably absent from discussions of policy solutions. So I decided to return to the classroom, where I could again be on the front lines of policy and where race and class were central to every conversation.

Now in my seventh year of teaching, I have the unique opportunity to teach Japanese—yes, you read that correctly—to predominantly black, low-income students in Raleigh. Every day we have discussions about race and poverty, and how language can give my students access to opportunities in college and far beyond. Last summer I had the opportunity to take 15 students to Tokyo and Kyoto, where I was overwhelmed with pride watching my students use their language skills, meet students from other cultures and get their first taste of Japanese food. As a Teach For America alum from 8 years ago, I have seen the ways the organization has evolved since 2008 and believes it is now more than ever a path to making an incredible impact.”

We represent just a small cross-section of the Teach For America and Duke alumni network. A network that includes more than 30 doctors and health care professionals, 50 lawyers and policy makers, 10 professors and more than 20 principals and school leaders. And our stories are three among more than 53,000 from the individuals who make up the broader Teach For America community. While this community is diverse in every way, we share the powerful conviction that every child deserves an excellent education that will prepare them to pursue their dreams. And we personally know that there are many leaders here in Durham who can help make that happen.

And so, rather than engaging in theoretical debates, we challenge students to act. We need more leaders working toward the day when all children, regardless of race, ZIP code or background, receive an excellent education. And we challenge The Chronicle’s editorial board to use the occasion of Teach For America’s third deadline not to discourage people from choosing a challenging and rewarding path, but to celebrate those who have made a commitment to equity: the corps members making an impact in our nation’s highest-need classrooms; the Duke and Teach For America alumni who are creating solutions for students across all sectors and all levels of the system; and the Duke students who clicked “submit” on their TFA applications, choosing to launch a lifetime of impact in the classroom. 

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