Q: My daughter, a rising college senior, finds volunteer tutoring very satisfying. She will graduate in January and wants to apply for a two-year stint at Teach For America. I think she should start her real career upon graduation. How can I convince her?
A: What if her real career turns out to be teaching? Or a position inspired by her Teach For America (TFA) experience? Teaching is still an appealing career choice and a great foundation for other professions. Many of the 40,000 TFA alumni now work in related fields, many in leadership positions.
Take Eddy Hernandez Perez, for instance. His assignment was teaching fifth grade in San Antonio. Through his teaching success he got to advise then-Mayor Julian Castro on education policy and helped start Leadership SAISD, a nonprofit program that works on behalf of students in the San Antonio school district. He eventually got his master's degree in education at Harvard and is set to graduate law school at the University of Texas next May. Hard to argue with that career path!
Laura Smith, a high school math teacher in Dayton, Ohio, is completing her two-year TFA commitment and weighing a third. "My degree is in accounting, and I love to teach math," she says. "One day I'd like to combine those skills in a way that uses data to help narrow the opportunity gap, one of our nation's toughest problems."
They have some advice for your daughter: Apply to TFA because of your passion. Are you doing this for students and to learn the skill of teaching? If not, then rethink your priorities.
"Don't use TFA as a break between college and grad school," says Smith. "The work is hard. You'll struggle to focus on your students if you're only passionate about studying for the LSAT."
Assess your adaptability. TFA doesn't put you where you want to go. If accepted, TFA sends you where you're needed.
Prep well to apply: While applications have dipped from the 2013 high of more than 57,000, getting in remains competitive. Prepare yourself by talking with alumni and principals in schools with TFA teachers.
"If you can't stay excited throughout the application process, decide on a different route," says Smith.
Expect tough challenges. If accepted, you'll need to prove yourself to students and colleagues. You'll get good support from TFA, but you need large stores of resilience and stamina.
And now here's some advice for you, Mom. Some form of service to the country helps young people get to know themselves and what they're made of. It helps define their professional personalities, and they learn what motivates them. They also develop insight and leadership skills. If your daughter decides to apply, be thrilled you've raised such a mature young woman.
Find TFA application deadlines at teachforamerica.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)