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What's TFA Got to Do with It

A growing number of Ed School students credit TFA for leading them into education

When Education Policy Management (EPM) student Michael Dabrieo found himself working on a Navajo Reservation in New Mexico with no Internet or libraries, 70 miles from the city and 12 miles from his mailbox as part of Teach For America (TFA) it could have been the end of his education career. But, instead, it was just the beginning.

“[The reservation] wasn’t a place that I was revved up to go,” Dabrieo says, pointing out that his TFA placement was a 180 degree turn from his college life at the University of Maine. Newly graduated from college, Dabrieo, like many who enroll in TFA, wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. But, through TFA, he discovered what to do with the rest of his life.

Since its founding in 1990, TFA – a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing education inequity by placing young graduates into low-income communities in the U.S. to teach for at least two years – has had its fair share of criticism in the media and education field, mostly for not providing proper training and turning people off from education careers. Yet, increasingly, more and more of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s incoming students have participated in the program. In fact, in the past five years that number has steadily grown to just over 14 percent of all incoming master’s students.

In all, nearly 600 TFA alums have chosen to continue on to HGSE at the conclusions of their TFA placements to find answers to questions about education and shape their future in the field. Sometimes that future entails going back to the organization that initially engaged them, and other times it is discovering positions in education tied to TFA’s mission of addressing educational inequities.

Heather Harding, Ed.M.’00, Ed.D.’06, president of EDCore, joined TFA in its infancy, even though she had planned a career in journalism. (Read more about her experience.)

“Nobody knew what [TFA] was,” she says. “There were few people on my campus who were really excited about it. It sounded like a cool idea. People were calling it a domestic Peace Corps experience. My guess was that nobody thought it was going to transform our career trajectory, but for many people it has.”

Hooked on a mission

Harding isn’t the only member of the Ed School community who joined TFA on a whim only to be lured into its mission and by a future focused on education.

EPM student Natalie Hanni was uncertain about career steps after graduating from college, so she joined TFA, attracted to its mission. Even so, she didn’t foresee sticking around long after the two-year commitment was over. “I thought it was something to do for two years and a great way to do something for the country,” Hanni says. The experience soon changed her perspective.

“I realized that it was important work and I wanted to stay in education,” says Hanni, who completed her two-year commitment in Washington, D.C. and then stayed another two years. “It made me more aware and informed on issues I didn’t know about, particularly with early childhood education.”

Hanni isn’t alone among TFA alums now at the Ed School. Once on the ground and in the classroom, the TFA experience opened the eyes of many HGSE students about the drastic inequities among children in the United States.

“I had never seen poverty like that,” Dabrieo says of the community in which he was placed, admitting he often questioned his students for not doing their homework only to learn they had been working or that their families’ generators ran out of oil.

Although familiar with the hardships of being a teacher from his father, School Leadership Program student Kane Koller still struggled with the inequities in his placement location of Brownsville, Texas.

“It’s more difficult than you think … when you cross to the other side and are standing in front of the chalkboard, you realize how hard it is,” he says.

Though most TFA teachers acknowledge that teaching was exceptionally challenging and admit to feeling unprepared, it was their students, the mission, and the supports the TFA organization provided that kept them committed and inspired them to learn more. When they walked away from TFA – some having only completed the two-year commitment and others having taught additional years in their placement school or another location – they faced lingering questions about education in the United States.

Hanni found herself stuck on thinking about early childhood education; Harding wondered about teacher development and evaluation; Koller questioned how slowly things changed; Dabrieo wanted to figure out how to be part of a solution to the problem. They all knew that, in order to find answers, furthering their own education was a vital piece of the puzzle.

A quest for answers

As for the reasons they enrolled in HGSE, they are just as varied as their reasons to pursue TFA. Some students and alumni came to HGSE because of its focus on urban education and leadership, while others had heard about it through the grapevine at TFA. But one thing was certain, once they found themselves on campus, their TFA experiences shaped the lenses with which they viewed education.

“Being a part of the corps was an essential part of my development as someone committed to addressing inequities in our society,” says Andrew Mandel, Ed.M.’05, who taught in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. “Had I not been a part of TFA, I don’t think I would have had context for the courses I took [at HGSE]. Everything I learned was filtered through what it meant to be a classroom teacher and what the implications might be for a rural school with Mexican-American students.”

Miguel Solis, Ed.M.’12, (read his story) rolled up his sleeves at TFA, but HGSE, with its culture dominated by a strong belief in public education and the importance of eliminating inequities, gave him time to look at the big picture. “I had no answers and didn’t think I could be a leader in education without understanding the issues,” he says.

Life after TFA and HGSE

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned through TFA and HGSE is what Mandel was told nearly 13 years ago, when he encountered a TFA recruiter. He, along with a friend, asked if they got to choose where they taught. The recruiter looked at Mandel and his friend with eyebrows raised and said, “It’s not about you.” After completing TFA and HGSE, Mandel returned to TFA where he currently leads a Values-Based Leadership collaborative that helps regional staff explore their strengths, their identities, their relationships, and their visions for change through getaways, reflective workshops, and coaching conversations with TFA teachers.

Mandel isn’t the only person to return to TFA after graduating from the Ed School. Currently, there are a least 19 HGSE alumni working in senior administrative or leadership positions at TFA, including as director of institute operations; director of talent recruitment; and senior management director of people, leadership, and experience. That number isn’t surprising to Harding, who also returned to the organization.

“I left TFA when there were 100 people on staff and rejoined with a couple thousand. It was a different place in terms of size and scale but it had the same values and mission,” says Harding, who spent several years working at TFA as a vice president and senior vice president of research and community partnerships.

In some instances, a partnership between HGSE and TFA has also bridged the gap for educators who strive to increase their education and return to leadership positions in schools and districts. For instance, in an effort to expand the number of high-caliber principals in Chicago Public Schools, the Principal Leadership Development Program was started in 2007. A collaboration between the Ed School, Teach For America, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Public Education Fund, and the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, the program requires a six-year commitment from TFA alums. One year is spent studying at the Ed School, another year working with a current Chicago principal, and four years in a leadership role at a school in Chicago. They receive full tuition at the Ed School, and are paid as CPS employees once they start working at their schools.

And TFA alums certainly make an impression at the Ed School – both on their classmates and on faculty – by sharing their experiences and their dedication to the field.

“I always loved teaching TFA alums when I was a law professor. I admired and was inspired by their mixture of passion, hard-earned realism, and determination," says Dean James Ryan. "The same remains true of TFA alums at HGSE.”

Many TFA alums don’t go back to the organization or classroom after their time at HGSE. However, they find other ways to make an impact in education whether working in research, administration, policy, or in nonprofits.

When he finishes HGSE this spring, Dabrieo says, though it might sound crazy to return to the reservation, he has “unfinished business” there. He says that TFA opened his eyes to the often heartbreaking work of education. “It’s frustrating but it’s what keeps you going …. The work is never done,” he says. “You can be happy with what you’ve done but never satisfied.”


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