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Perspective | Why choose to teach? Four new teachers answer

The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in N.C. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.

Young professionals are receiving mixed messages about entering the field of education. Headlines resound with the critical teacher shortage, all while a significant number of experienced educators are choosing to retire or pursue careers outside the classroom. 

However, back-to-school season is here, and despite all of the challenges at hand, there remains a teaching force adamantly preparing to welcome students to the classroom once more. The Aspen Institute estimates that roughly 310,000 teachers enter the field each year, including Teach For America corps members who consist of recent college graduates and professionals changing careers.

So, what are the hopes driving this new generation of teachers? In speaking with a few new additions to the Teach For America North Carolina (TFA NC) community entering the field this fall, several trends emerged that I believe are important to share. 

Stoking the passion of new professionals

New teachers are certainly aware of how much pressure they face in the midst of the teacher shortage. That’s why I asked Ashley Weaver, Marissa Feliciano, Dillon Lay, and Pamela Stanek about their approach to the 2022-2023 school year, and particularly their immediate goals as new professionals to the field. Across the board, their answers conveyed a desire to become excellent educators and create a comfortable learning environment for their students.

“[My] main goal right now is to be a sponge,” said Ashley, graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and now a Guilford County educator. “I am soaking in all the information I can get from my coaches, veteran teachers, books, YouTube, and the curriculum standards set by my district and state.”

“One of my short-term goals as a corps member is being receptive to learning and feedback throughout my first year of teaching,” said Dillon, who will be teaching at Ranson Middle School in Charlotte. “I want my students to feel comfortable telling me when they don’t understand something. Creating an environment of trust and reflection is very important to me for the upcoming school year.”

Teach For America is designed to help new teachers meet these professional goals by pairing them with local leadership coaches who support their development with feedback and one-on-one coaching aimed at helping corps members improve their teaching craft and grow as leaders.

Over the decades, Teach For America has learned that a key factor to recruiting and retaining top teacher talent — in addition to the encouragement of friends and family beyond the classroom — is a support system of other education professionals so that teachers feel like an integral part of their community. That’s why our coaches intentionally play a role in helping to build that professional network. That’s also why we provide teachers with support and tools to maintain their wellness and mental health and to lead rigorous, supportive, and inclusive classrooms.

Within this mentorship, teachers and coaches also articulate longer-term goals that, with time, teachers can pursue with further programming options through Teach For America and its partners. For new teachers like Pamela and Marissa, those long-term ambitions include pursuing advanced degrees and roles in school administration and curriculum development, all of which TFA NC is positioned to support. 

Representation and empowerment

When they shared news of their acceptance to Teach For America, the teachers I spoke to encountered a variety of responses. Dillon expressed gratitude for “a strong support system back home in Kentucky and a strong support system of fellow TFA North Carolina corps members. ” 

Ashley, who received “nothing but love and support,” still fielded questions about choosing Teach For America as an entryway into the teaching profession, and Marissa was asked why she would be relocating to Farmville, North Carolina, rather than teaching locally in New York. Members of Pamela’s family asked if she felt prepared for the challenges related to teaching in a high-needs school. 

Responses to these well-intentioned questions of concern speak to the alignment these corps members feel with Teach For America and its mission to ensure that one day all children will receive an equitable and excellent education. 

“Making the decision to join Teach For America was easy,” Marissa says. From a young age she was interested in pursuing a career in teaching, particularly to pay forward the meaningful instruction she received as a student. Teach For America offered an opportunity to fulfill this commitment in a program that would support her values and long-term goals. “It wasn’t until I expressed my passion that my family and friends understood my decision to join TFA.” 

For Pamela, teaching in a low-income community doesn’t cause her hesitation. Instead, like Marissa, it fuels her passion. 

“I was once that student,” Pamela says. “I decided to join the teaching profession through Teach For America because I want to help the indigenous children in the Navajo Nation. I grew up in a low-income home that had no running water or electricity. But against all odds, I made it.” 

Pamela’s drive to advocate for and empower Indigenous communities such as hers is the reason she’s committed to developing her skills as an educator here in North Carolina. “Teaching is done every day, no matter how far or close I am to home,” she says. “I want to decrease the high school dropout rate and increase the college graduation rate for Indigenous students. I joined TFA because one day I will help to make this change.” 

Teaching inspires a similarly personal passion in Ashley. “My own experience as a Black student in the public school system made me realize how essential representation is,” Ashley says. “There were teachers who believed stereotypes about me. However, I also had many teachers who believed in my ability and now I am here today: a first-generation college student, HBCU graduate, Teach for America Corps member, and a proud teacher in my [alma mater] school district!”

How we welcome new teachers matters 

In light of the uncertainty about the future of the profession, perhaps Ashley, Marissa, Dillon, and Pamela sound like idealists. I would argue, though, that their experiences, their identities, and their unique journeys into the classroom are the stuff of great teachers — even legacy-makers. I hope they keep the spark that brought them here and that they take every negative headline in stride as they advocate daily for the well-being of their students and their peers. Their resolve to give back, to make a difference, and to continue charting a positive trajectory for their students is what I hope all teachers of North Carolina’s students share.

Regardless of training, ambition, or expectation, the first year of teaching holds a steep learning curve for anyone. Our support and celebration of teacher efforts will help them sustain their stamina and achieve their intended impact: improving student outcomes. That’s why we should welcome all new educators just the way we would a new student: by meeting them where they are, all the while maintaining a clear vision of their potential. 

Monique Perry-Graves

Dr. Monique Perry-Graves is an award-winning social impact and education executive with over 20 years of experience leading in the business, non-profit, and higher education sectors. She has a relentless passion for education born from her lived experience becoming a teen mom and the unwavering belief in her potential from her family and her broader education and professional village.

In July 2021, Graves began serving as Teach For America’s first tri-region statewide executive director leading TFA’s entire North Carolina footprint. As TFA’s chief executive for the state, she leads multiple teams spanning Charlotte, the Piedmont-Triad, Triangle, and Eastern North Carolina, in support of TFA’s mission.

She is also long-time community leader serving on numerous boards and advisory committees, including the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council (CELC) Education Working Group, Governor Roy Cooper’s task force for the recruitment and retention of diverse educators (DRIVE),  WGU North Carolina, EducationNC and North Carolina Central University’s College of Arts, Sciences and Humanities. She is an Aspen Institute Presidential Fellow, Inroads alum, a proud mom of an adult son, and pandemic bride.