Teach For America’s Critical Role

By Natalie Tortorella ‘14 (Teach For America – Lynn, MA)

A few weeks ago, the Echo ran a critical article on Teach For America—the program through which I now teach fifth grade math in Lynn, MA. As a Colby alum, I was disappointed to see such an uninformed piece on a program that plays such an essential role in the movement for educational equity in this country and on the lives of my students.

Personally, I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was my students’ age. But I didn’t want to teach just anywhere. As a kid, I had the chance to receive an education that put me on the path to opportunity. Many of my peers and neighbors, meanwhile, did not. As a result, I spent four years at Colby imagining big things for my future while they faced a much more limited set of choices – decisions based more on surviving than thriving. These individuals are every bit as smart, ambitious or talented as I am. But because of their lack of a quality education, their futures were decided for them.

During my junior year at Colby, I interned at KIPP Academy Lynn. As I met the teachers, leaders and, most importantly, the students, I knew that this was the place where I belonged.  I applied to Teach For America and am now teaching at KIPP. As a member of these two organizations, I get to live every day following my belief that a student’s success in life should neither be determined by the color of his skin nor the zip code she is born into. The work is challenging, exciting and inspiring. Each day my students push me to be better than the day before. They question my thoughts and challenge my beliefs.

At the most basic level, last month’s article was full of misinformation. It’s not true, for example, that applicants have to travel to Boston to interview for TFA. Most applicants interview at Bates and all are given the opportunity to participate virtually, if preferred. But this inaccuracy aside, what concerns me most is what was missing from the article altogether: my students. Trust me, they would be worth the three-hour drive to Boston.

My ten year olds dream of Colby as a place where they can someday go to learn how to be teachers, doctors, lawyers and, of course, NBA players (we refer to our classroom the Colby College Class of 2026).  They want to teach, they want to excel and they want to better the place in which they grew up.  They want to have the same impact on children that their teachers are having on them. I want Colby to be a place for them to do all that and more. But I see now that in order for that to happen  we have to raise the bar for discourse on campus. We have to look beyond easy dismissals like this one of Teach For America and ask the questions that matter—questions about equity, opportunity and access. As Colby students and alumni, this is our power, privilege, and responsibility.

Teach For America won’t solve educational inequity in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, that’s not how deep, systemic injustice works. It takes sustained, persistent effort from all angles. It takes missteps and course corrections and figuring out how to get better. These are the skills and mindsets I try to build in my students—kids who have a long way to go to have a shot at a place like Colby. If and when they make it there, I certainly hope they won’t be disappointed.

We’ve already waited too long to address the severe inequities in our schools. And if we wait for the perfect cure-all, we’ll be waiting longer still. I’m glad to be part of a program taking action now and striving to get better and better along the way. My kids can’t wait another day.

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