Jake Steel loved working in politics, but it lacked the type of impact he was looking for.
“Politics works for the top down, from the outside in, and I don’t believe you will ever change someone long-term from the outside in,” said Steel, who had worked on Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Change has to come from the inside.”
As Steel thought about a career change that would put him on the front lines of real change, education seemed like the perfect fit.
“I thought, ‘How can I get in a situation where I can make change from the inside out?’” Steel said. “I thought if I could be in a classroom and if I could talk to students one-on-one and help them see their potential, that will make the change from the inside and it will last forever.”
The communications and political science major from Brigham Young University did some research on how he might be able to transition to a career as an educator and came across the website for Teach For America, a national organization that places professionals in high-needs schools. Steel applied for the next round of hiring and found himself teaching math and science at John Marshall Mid-High School in Oklahoma City a year later.
Steel is one of more than 123 Teach For America (TFA) corps members in central Oklahoma, the majority of which are in the Oklahoma City Public School district. TFA has had a presence in Oklahoma City since 2011, and besides placing talented professionals in urban classrooms, the program has helped the district combat its teacher shortage.
“It was a good opportunity to not only fill high-need vacancies, such as math and science and early childhood, but we were also able to bring in people from around the country to give our students a different perspective of other cultures,” said Chuck Tompkins, executive director of human resources in the OKC district.
The district pays TFA members as it would any other teacher. Before a corps member steps foot inside a classroom, he or she goes through a rigorous training program and a closely supervised summer school teaching program.
The majority of TFA teachers in Oklahoma City are from out of state, but a few, like Alexis Daniels, are native to the area.
“I used to work in a summer camp working with urban youth and was more than halfway through my degree plan when I decided what I really wanted to do is teach,” said Daniels, who studied journalism at Oklahoma State University. “I found out about TFA … spoke with some recruiters and went through the application process.”
Daniels is now teaching pre-kindergarten at FD Moon Elementary Academy in east Oklahoma City.
While working at summer camps, Daniels developed a heart for urban children, and her two weeks as a teacher has affirmed that passion.
“The experience I have had is they are smart kids; they just come from different homes,” Daniels said. “There [are] a lot of things going on the inner city, and we really need teachers who can come in and show them that success is a possibility for them.”
TFA is all about finding high-quality teachers for high-need schools, said Lance Tackett, executive director of TFA Oklahoma, which also oversees corps members in Tulsa, Lawton, Muskogee and Sapulpa.
“We are going after people who are graduating at the top of their class,” Tackett said. “We want some of the best and brightest in front of our kids.”
While TFA selects students and professionals who have demonstrated success in other fields, the program understands that teaching is not just a profession anyone can jump into. Once selected, corps members complete a training program that lasts several months in the spring, followed by another two-week session in their new region, and then they lead a five-week summer school class.
“Altogether, they go through 500 to 600 hours of professional development,” Tackett said. “Once they step foot into a classroom in the fall, they do 100 hours of additional professional development. We have coaches that work with our schools, and they are in their classrooms every few weeks. Its a pretty robust process.”
The training process is designed to train teachers to lesson plan and lecture, but it also gives corps members a glimpse at what it’s like to teach in high-need schools.
“They didn’t give us rose-colored glasses; they really pushed us,” Steel said. “First-year teachers need a support system every single day. They need someone to say, ‘It’s tough, but let’s keep going.’”
The Oklahoma City district entered the new school year in need of nearly 150 teachers, and TFA corps members have helped reduce that number.
“Oklahoma is high-need mostly because there is a giant teacher shortage here,” Tackett said.
The program helps the district fill its hiring needs, but it also brings teachers to OKC who have a passion and belief in urban education.
“Folks who join TFA do it because they believe education can be a pathway out of poverty and they believe education equity is a right,” Tackett said. “I think there is a moral imperative piece to this. This is actually a social justice issue, and I think it carries an incredible passion and conviction.”
Print Headline: ‘Education equity is a right’ Teach For America helps reduce the impact of “giant teacher shortage” in OKC public schools.