Why Teach For America?

My students come on Monday. I am terrified. There is nothing like it, the first day of being a teacher in my own classroom, MY classroom. I have so much to do. My long term plan (LTP) is in shambles, because I may be completely changing the order I’ll be teaching units. My unit plan is in limbo-land because I do not know which unit I will be teaching, and my first day’s lesson plan is all a haze because I keep on second-guessing the objectives. My classroom is also in all kinds of disarray, though I am so thankful to the former science teacher who organized all the posters she had used into units so that I could put those up for myself. Basically, I’m going in without a single clue as to how I’ll emerge.

It is within this context that I reflected on why I joined TFA in the first place. I felt I needed a reminder of the big picture of my own personal commitment to teaching, and more specifically, my personal commitment to teaching as a TFA corps member. In doing my reflection, I came across the Letter of Intent that I wrote for my Teach For America Application just a short year ago.

I am an exception to an unfortunate rule, a rule that dictates that children born without the privilege of wealth rarely receive the right to quality education. I was born into a family of immigrants. I entered Kindergarten not knowing English. My siblings and I grew up on the federal free and reduced-price meals program. And yet, by virtue of living in an area with excellent public schools, having peers who were college bound, and most importantly, receiving the support of teachers who held me to high expectations, I am now a senior at Princeton, studying and seeking ways to fight the achievement gap instead of falling victim to it.

My choice, therefore, to study education policy has been guided by the knowledge that far too many children born into similar circumstances have not excelled or achieved, no matter their effort or aptitude, because they were never given the opportunity to do so. It is a passion that is fueled by the belief that access to quality education should not be a matter of chance—or luck—but rather the right of all children. All that I learn about the detrimental effects of language deprivation in early childhood or how policies encouraging segregated housing lead to segregated schools, I learn under the overarching question of “How?” How do we close the achievement gap?

I have leveraged both my personal experience of excelling despite a disadvantaged background and my academic experience in education policy to contribute to the fight for equal educational opportunity. During my last two summers, I interned with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) as an assistant fifth grade math teacher and then as the leadership development assistant to the KIPP Houston executive team. I worked with a highly motivated and inspired group of people to ensure that every child who stepped through the school doors received the highest possible level of education. Most importantly, I became convinced that the key to excellent education is having great educators, and that great educators are not born, they are made.

Teach for America is the ideal next step on my journey towards building a future with equal educational opportunity. As a Teach for America corps members, I seek to serve my students first by continually training to become a master teacher through asking questions, taking criticism, constantly learning, persisting through difficulties, and using data to inform my actions. As a teacher, I also hope to help my students build character and learn universal values of diligence, determination, and desire. While these values are harder to measure than academic achievement, they are indescribably important for future success and ability to contribute positively to the world.

Finally, I seek to join and build a national movement that will make quality education the rule, and not the exception. I seek to become a better and more informed leader, so that in whichever direction I next go, it will always be as someone who is in tune with the needs of low-income communities. But first, I teach.

Deborah Chang

Princeton University

Class of 2010

But first, I teach.