Elected officials, local celebrities, and business executives from across the city returned to the classroom April 29–May 3 to celebrate Teach For America Week. Each year, Teach For America Week invites community leaders to serve as guest teachers in public school classrooms, engaging and inspiring students. Athena Turner - Executive Director of Teach for America - Memphis spoke with TSD President and Publisher Bernal E. Smith, II, regarding Teach for America and its purpose.
BES: So tell me about Teach For America (TFA), for somebody not familiar with it. What is TFA? What are your goals, and what are you trying to accomplish?
AT: Our vision at TFA is that one day there will be a day where every single last child will have access to quality education. And currently, that is not the case. The way that we go about achieving that vision is that we go out and recruit our nation's most promising future leaders, both in college campuses, graduating seniors...we have a new initiative now to recruit veterans who are returning back into our nation's classrooms. We recruit professionals, folks who have a real eye for justice and who are committed to this issue to be classroom teachers. We ask for a 2 year commitment up front, but what we find is that 2/3 of our folks are staying their full lives in this work as teachers, as school leaders, as district personnel. But also in supporting industries because we know that teachers and principals matter a whole lot. But so do doctors and so do lawyers and policy makers to really rise and help a community meet its full potential.
BES: I had a conversation with a teacher the other day. She currently teaches in the Memphis City School system. She was mentioning that many teachers, with all that's going on with the unification of schools -- a lot that's happening at the state level -- it seems to many of them that their profession is under attack, that there is a real lack of respect for people that have to do a very, very difficult job. How does TFA address that issue in terms of trying to attract new people to a profession that seems to have lost its luster, so to speak?
AT: Well, I will absolutely say that as a community, we need to put our arms around our teachers. They are doing some of the hardest jobs in the community with the stresses and the pressures and the ever changing environment. The way that we work with our teachers is really around orienting them towards what's possible and giving them every support that we can. Whether that is from our staff, every one of our teachers, we call them Core Members -- every single one of them has a mentor on our team who in their classroom every other week or so observing them, giving them feedback, and sometimes being their cheerleader because that's what they need. And we bring them together to share. What is your collective impact? Because as a teacher, you're isolated in the four walls of your classroom, it can be really hard on any given day to see like, "Am I really making a difference?" We have to make sure that we are pulling up to see the systemic impact view, and what is our community doing? We bring in folks to give perspective. I taught in the MCS system in 2006 - 2008 and the differences that are there today...sometimes our people who are brand new, they don't have the perspective and the experience to know how much really has changed for the better for our kids and for the adults in the system. So we try to strike the right balance between pushing our people really hard to do the best that they can. And that is some tough feedback sometimes -- but also bringing them together to celebrate the real "wins" that they have to keep them going.
BES: Tell me about TFA week and what's going on this week in Memphis in conjunction with FedEx as a partner.
AT: TFA Week is an annual event across the country in all of our regions, and it really exists for a couple of reasons. First, our kids really need role models in the community. They need access to leaders. They need access to power-makers or power players in the community. We have relationships that we think we can bring to the community and to our kids. To see a kid, you know, like this morning I just came from one of our partner schools, Memphis College Prep. And Neil Gibson at FedEx was talking about what they do to transport pandas and other endangered animals across the country and all of the other things that they do at FedEx. And to see kids start to imagine what it might be like to work at FedEx. Similarly, Gloria Boyland from FedEx talked a couple of days ago, and Mayor Luttrell yesterday. For kids to see community leaders invest in me and giving their time [makes them think] I'm important, and I matter, and also to see what is possible for their futures -- that is one of the primary objectives.
The other is to really lend voice to the issues that are facing our kids. As community leaders come in, the see how hard it is to stand in front of a group of kids for an hour. So they start to get a real appreciation for the teachers who are doing this hard work. They also get a real appreciation for what's at stake for our kids...why we have to get this right. We just cannot separate another generation. Those are the two primary objectives and we work with all sorts of investors.
BES: Tell us about some of the people that are here.
AT: We've had a really great week this year. FedEx has been an annual supporter of our work. We've always had lots of wonderful FedEx executives. This week we've had Gloria Boyland, Lori Tucker, and Neil Gibson. We've had both mayors--the county mayor and the city mayor. Mayor Wharton will be speaking later today. We have had Leman Rucker who will be speaking later this afternoon at Overton. FedEx also supported the 3 doctors from New Jersey.
BES: Yes, great folks. I had a chance to see them.
AT: We also had the Duck Master which was fun -- the Peabody Duck Master. He's going to be at an elementary school later this afternoon.
BES: Awesome! That's incredible work in our community. I commend you guys for recruiting new talent into the area. That is so crucial for our community -- not just in Memphis but across the country -- to make it more attractive to people to seriously consider going into the teaching profession.
Is part of this effort to really sort of begin to encourage students at younger ages -- at elementary and middle school and high school to potentially consider teaching or education as a profession?
AT: Absolutely. I think in Memphis, myself and my team -- we think that the real day that we have met and achieved what we are setting out to [accomplish] is when our kids are leading our community and when our kids have the power and the access, the information, the knowledge, the creativity, all of those things to do what is their right, which is to leave their city and their community. Right now they are not in the position to do that. That is NOT okay. And so if we can inspire kids to be teachers, if we can inspire them to be the next generation of "C Suite" executives at FedEx and all around and everywhere in between -- that's the ballgame. And not just to inspire them, but actually equip them to be able to as well.