by Brendan Chan
Ten months ago, I was worried about what I would say on my first day as a teacher. Would my students like me? Would they respect me? Would they be able to see right through my strict teacher act?
Looking back, those weren’t the questions I should have asked. I should have asked how I could build confidence in students who hadn’t passed the state standardized Math TAKS test in years. I should have asked what I could do to provide support for students who needed it the most. What I should have asked was how to get students to understand why I came back home to San Antonio.
When I say “I am in Teach For America,” I always get one of three responses: 1) confusion because people have never heard of it, 2) excitement because they believe in the work of the organization, or 3) a semi-quizzical and contemplative look that is usually followed up by a series of questions to know more about my decision to join the organization.
Teach For America, often referred to as TFA, is a two-year teaching program that places teachers in a high-need area. These areas tend to be in low-income and usually urban school districts. For me, it was very important that I return to my hometown of San Antonio. I grew up 20 minutes from the school where I now teach, yet the educational experiences of my high school students and those I called classmates are as different as night and day.
The idea behind TFA is that we can immediately improve the education system in the United States and work to close the educational achievement gap between high and low-income areas by putting high-quality teachers in the classroom for a minimum of two years. In the long-term, we create life-long education advocates who will carry their stories and experiences in the classroom with them as they become business, political, and community leaders. There are critics and supporters of TFA alike, most with valid opinions and personal agendas for entering the discussion about education reform.
As a 2011 graduate from The University of Texas at Austin, I was faced with a question in the fall of my senior year: what did I want to do with my life after college? I studied Marketing in the McCombs School of Business at UT and was immersed in a sea of recruiting and corporate opportunities. I had decided a long time ago that I would apply to TFA because I was drawn to the mission of the organization and the idea of being part of a movement to end educational inequality in the United States. I thought that I would apply to any and all jobs that looked fulfilling to me and make decisions if I ended up receiving offers.
Around the same time TFA made me an offer, Google offered me the opportunity to work at their headquarters in Mountain View, California. The Google interview process was a whirlwind of questions, excitement, anxiety, and pure joy. At the time, I knew my job hunt was over. I had been dreaming of working for Google since I had visited their headquarters in 2009 and thought all of the pieces of my life were falling into place.
I am so fortunate that Google and TFA have a corporate partnership, meaning that Google has put my job offer on hold for two years to allow me to participate in TFA. I knew right away that I would be accepting both positions because it was the perfect situation for me: I would participate in TFA, make a difference in some lives, then go to California to start my own.
As time went on, I started having some doubts. Was there something wrong with the mindset that I was putting my “career” on hold to “do TFA”? Would two years in the classroom be enough to create true and long-lasting change? Would I feed into the pattern of instability that students might already have in their lives? I started reading editorials on TFA and many questions arose for me. Am I doing more harm than good? Am I teaching “for the right reasons?” Did I make the wrong choice?
One year later, I realize those were silly thoughts. The work that I do through TFA isn’t about me or my choices, it’s about providing amazing opportunities to students who might not have the chance otherwise. To be honest, I could not have predicted how much I would be effected by my first year in the classroom. Any teacher can attest to the difficulty of their first year of teaching, even when surrounded by a brilliant network of teachers both at school and through TFA. I can confidently say that after having taught for one year, I have made a tangible and positive impact on the lives of my students. And I can say without a doubt that their effect on me has been equal or greater.
I was a little hesitant to share my full story in this article. What if one of my students or co-workers happened to stumble upon it? Would they think differently of me? Would they judge me for the decisions that I have made?
I realize now that it brings power to the movement to share my story. I am here for a reason: to help teach the most wonderful high school students life lessons that will stick with them forever. My students inspire me to be a better version of myself on a daily basis so I try to do the same for them.
I don’t know what my future will bring, but I do know that whatever happens, I will take the memories and relationships of my students with me wherever I go. And, as cheesy as it may sound, I wouldn’t give that up for anything in the world. Not even a job at Google.
Story and photos courtesy Brendan ChanConnect with San Antonio native, Teach for America teacher of algebra at Fox Tex, and future Google employee Brendan Chan on Twitter.