Teach For America Podcast Transcript

Aaliyah El-Amin

Aaliyah El-Amin

Below is the transcript of our August podcast, “An Interview with Teach For America Alumna Aaliyah El-Amin.” Huge thanks to podcast intern Sara Lozito, an AmeriCorps team leader, for work in creating the transcript. Listen to the show here.

Amy: Welcome to the Idealist podcast. I’m Amy Potthast and this is the The New Service Podcast from Idealist.org – moving people from good intentions to action.

This month I chatted with Aaliyah El-Amin, a Teach For America alumna.

In 2000, at age twenty, Aaliyah graduated from Davidson College and joined Teach For America to teach 4th and 5th grade in Atlanta, Georgia. After leaving the corps and working as an instructional facilitator at her placement school, Aaliyah became the executive director of Teach For America Charlotte. She’s currently a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in in Education Policy, Leadership and Instructional Practice.

Hi Aaliyah, welcome to the show.

Aaliyah: Hi how are you?

Amy: I’m good. I wanted to start by asking you to introduce yourself and Teach for America.

Aaliyah: Sure. So, my name is Aaliyah El-Amin I participated in Teach for America organization in 2000. I was a 2000 Teach for America Corps member, I taught 4th and 5th grade in Atlanta, Georgia. Right now, I’m actually working on my doctorate at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Ed Policy, Leadership and Instructional Practice.

Teach for America is a national organization and our mission is to close the achievement gap. And basically what I mean by that is right now on average in low-income communities there are 4th graders who are already three grade levels behind in the median math.

And so Teach for America’s mission is basically to insure that that does not exist. And our strategies for insuring that that doesn’t exist are twofold: so the first is, we recruit the nation’s top college graduates, other professionals who are really interested in helping us to solve the problem of the achievement gap. We train them, we support them, and we place them in a classroom where they’re committed to teaching for two years. And the second part of the strategy, which I think is really unique is we work to support everybody who commits to that two year experience, that two year teaching experience to continue their commitment to educational equity in whatever form or fashion they choose.

So whether or not that’s in school leadership, in politics, in a variety of other ways, but knowing that we’re not going to actually be able to solve or close the achievement gap without both teachers in the classrooms and people in other places. Our strategies really work to– work together to insure that we’re able to reach that goal.

Amy: I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about the Teach for America model for closing the achievement gap.

Aaliyah: I think the first thing is that Teach for America’s really about a movement. So, it’s a movement to end educational inequity. So, it’s a group of people who are committed to a cause and are committed to that cause in one way for two years, which is by teaching in the classroom, and then in a different way for the rest of their lives. We’re not just asking for a two year commitment, we’re really asking for a lifetime commitment to this really important cause.

In terms of other things, and I couldn’t speak to every single sort of teaching preparation program that’s out there but I think the difference, another main difference with Teach for America is that we’re not as I said earlier necessarily trying to close the teaching shortage we’re really trying to close the achievement gap, we also work to provide the initial training that we do upfront with out institute and five-week training program but also provide ongoing support for our teachers during their two years in the classroom insuring that they’re constantly developing as professionals and as teachers to really make measurable gains with their students.

And the last thing, we’re really, in order to close the achievement gap we have to know that students are increasing their academic proficiency. So our model is designed to really measure where our kids are when we get there and where they are when we leave. And our teachers’ charge is to move their kids two to three grade levels in a single year.

Amy: Teach for America’s been around since the early 90’s so you’ve had years and years and years to collect data on your teachers and their students’ outcomes. So I’m just curious what kind of impact has Teach for America had—have you guys closed any of the gaps?

Aaliyah: Well, what we’re able to find to your point just looking at that over the last 17 years, and specifically with some studies that have been done recently is that our teachers are able to move their students pretty incredible lengths wihin their two year commitment.

So if we think about the average gains that a student might make in reading, we’re able to see through data in North Carolina, for example, that our teachers that have gone through our training and support program are making these more sort of academic gains with their students in math and about the same academic gains with their students in reading as potentially teachers who have gone through a traditional education program.

And so we are seeing that in classrooms where our teachers are at the forefront and in schools that potentially have a large mass of Teach for America Corps members that we are seeing that needle start to shift and we are seeing that gap start to close. Of course, there is still a lot of work left to be done, which is where our alumni parts of our mission comes through. And insuring that classrooms are supported with resources and school districts are supported with the right curriculum and really some of the other pieces that go into the achievement gap are also addressed as well.

Amy: How do you guys partner with schools? Do schools come to you or do you guys do research to figure out what school districts or what regions are really more affected by the educational inequities that you’re aiming to fix?

Aaliyah: Yeah, I mean it’s actually a pretty intense process. So, and the first thing is really thinking about where are the places obviously we’re needed the most. Where we know that kids have all the potential in the world to achieve and potentially are not being able to reach the academic success we know that they can. And then also districts who are interested in being able to have Corps members who go through the Teach for America training and the Teach for America support process in their schools.

So it’s a longer answer than I can probably give you within the context of this interview but it’s a little bit of both. Like, one there’s the need and two, you know districts really thinking about what they need in order to support their students and asking whether or not we would consider having a region in that particular geographic area. And then from there there are a bunch of other things that go into whether or not we’d be able to open up an actual site within that region.

Amy: So you mentioned earlier that Teach for America recruits high performing college graduates and also professionals and I think probably people are less aware of your recruitment effort of professionals who’ve been out of school for a while so I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about that.

Aaliyah: Yeah, thank you for asking that. I think that’s really important to know. So, during the 2008-09 academic year, we really as an organization further invested in the branch of our recruitment team that focuses on college graduates, graduate students, and professionals. We are looking for people who really believe that the education situation we have in our country is our generation’s Civil Rights Movement. So it’s not necessarily a certain kind of professional or certain kinds of graduate students. It’s really just realizing that the problem is so large and the possibility for impact is so great that we need to bring as many people into the fold as we can. And so focusing solely on college graduates is limiting. There are graduate students and professionals who also have that strong belief for student achievement and can be a part of our organization as well.

Amy: Okay, and so, famously, Teach for America turns away lots and lots and lots and lots of applicants from tough schools all over the country. People who’ve probably never heard the word “no” said to them.

And so I’m looking at your website where it says “who we’re looking for,” and you have quite a list of bullet points, the first one is: “Demonstrated past leadership and achievement — achieving ambitious measurable results in academic, professional, extracurricular or volunteer settings.” They’re all — all of your bullet points look pretty intimidating but the first one is just like — wow. I’m curious to know if you can offer any examples, generic examples, of how someone could in their application, demonstrate those things.

Aaliyah: I think what you said, just given how critical the work is, we are looking for the strongest and the most committed and the best people across the country.

For example, with the demonstrated past leadership and achievement, to what I was saying earlier about the fact that we are really asking for our teachers to make measurable gains with students to show that they have made an academic impact. What that would look like in somebody potentially who in college is that they maybe were in charge of an organization whose job it was to fund raise a certain amount of money.

And they sort of set that target goal for themselves, they worked really hard you know, and sort of overcame obstacles to insure they were able to reach it. And at the end, they have a result to show for it. So, does that answer that question?

Amy: Yeah, definitely. Okay, and then just to flesh out a couple of the other ones: “perseverance in the face of challenges, strong critical thinking skills,” this one was interesting to me “making accurate linkages between cause and effect, and generating relevant solutions to problems.” So, a lot of real life experience is valuable for college students or for professionals or graduate students because it does give you a chance to solve problems. So I’m just wondering if you could give any more examples of the strong critical thinking skills or ways someone could demonstrate that.

Aaliyah: There are a lot of different ways this is measured in our process so I think there’s an opportunity to demonstrate that in your interview. There’s an opportunity to demonstrate that we actually do a model teaching, and you know the way in which you put your lesson together, the way you’re thinking about instructing students in that small brief time. But I think this is also about being able to generate solutions to a problem and really focus on what is actually in your control and what are some strategies that you yourself could implement to solve that problem.

It could be something as simple as you know, recognizing the semester they were failing a particular class and thinking about what are all the things that are contributing to them failing and what are the things that they now have to do in order to increase their grade. And insuring that all the strategies that they’re putting place are aligned to the actual goal that they’re looking for. So it can be something as simple as that. Two, you know, something even more complex. Where you have a professional who has really thought through how to turn their company around.  Or who has really thought through how to galvanize their staff.

Amy: Okay, and then a couple of other ones: “organizational ability,” which is still one main reason why I will never ever go through the Teach for America process!

Aaliyah: [laughter]

Amy: “Understanding of and desire to work relentlessly in pursuit of your vision” And then finally, this is the other one that I had a question about “respect for students and families in low-income communities.” And I’m just guessing that there’s probably a good percentage of TfA Corps members coming in who have never met a student from a low-income.

Aaliyah: Right.

Amy: How do they demonstrate respect if they haven’t had that experience yet?

Aaliyah: Yeah, I mean I think that this is really about what you fundamentally believe. We’re working to close the achievement gap, and what makes our organization I think really critical and really powerful is that we believe it’s possible to do that. And that there’s nothing about the students and there’s nothing about the families and there’s nothing about the communities that we work in that prevents you know, students from achieving at the absolute highest level.

So, I think demonstrating that even if you’ve never set foot in a low-income community before, even if you’ve never interacted with families that might be potentially different from your own family in whatever way, is believing that everybody has the potential to achieve at a high level, sort of regardless of any particular circumstance.

And I think that that can come out again in the way that you write essays about your experiences that brought you to be interested in Teach for America and the way that you talk about what you’re hoping to do in your classroom, like with your family. So, I don’t know if– I don’t think that…again, it’s hard to really quantify, give you a concrete example but I really think it’s about your–people’s mindsets and what they believe is possible and who they believe it’s possible with. And the ways in which they think about the work that we’re trying to do as an organization.

Amy: So, my next question–I’m curious to know in the short period of time Teach for America Corps members have to go through their training, how does TfA consistently turn out teachers who are rated so highly by their principals?

Aaliyah: The first thing to understand about the way our organization has laid out the preparation part is that it’s not actually only this like, one training in this one curriculum. So, there is a five-week summer institute program and then there’s also two years of on-going professional development and support. And I think sometimes that is missed. In terms of what that actually does, to insure that we do have principals who are really thinking that Teach for America teachers are some of the best teachers they have in the building.

So, I’ll say a couple things. I think there’s also the types of people we bring to the table to begin with. And the combination of the intense, really research-based, five-week program that we do provide. Where we really have thought strategically about what do the greatest teachers in the nation, like what do they do? What are the characteristics they embody? And what are the skills that they have? And what’s the knowledge they have? And we’ve really modeled our five-week training program around those things.

Amy: So can you be concrete?

Aaliyah: Yeah, so thinking particularly about planning and like how do, how do really excellent teachers plan their lessons and how do they think about to your point, the end goal whether or not it be a standardized test or whether or not it be you know, whatever it is in that particular district and then map it all the way back to the beginning of the year. Like what’s the process they use to plan their lessons? And how do they meet the diversity of their individual students. And how do they hold all kids to high behavioral expectations that you just said? And what are the strategies they use for that?

So I think we’ve done a lot of research over the years like on serving teachers in their classrooms; taking video, writing notes, like compiling research that’s been done all across the country and then being able to like, boil that down into what do we absolutely have to give our teachers in this five weeks to make sure they’re on that same path? And knowing that yes, five weeks is not enough to prepare anybody, like I don’t even think that you know, a four year training program is enough to prepare anybody for the challenge of teaching.

It’s really difficult work. But then knowing that and having that two year, on-going support where you might be meeting you know in a concept team with other math teachers in your region and talking about a specific strategy and talking about a specific standard.Or you might be meeting as a grade level with other fourth grade teachers in Teach for America’s organization and problem solving around some difficulties you’re seeing with reading.

So like that consistency of the support and the professional development and also I think the intense strategy that goes into that five week part, and in addition to the kinds of people that we brought to the table to begin with really help to get that end outcome of strong teachers that principals are really asking for who are making a dramatic difference with their kids.

Amy: So, I’m just thinking like a Corps member who goes through that experience– I guess I’m just curious if most or not all Corps members are just so optimistic? But that’s not really a real question, it’s just like, it just seems like they would have to be so optimistic.

Aaliyah: But you know what? I think the fact that people–idealism is a part of the magic. You know, like the fact that people really believe that anything is possible with kids and anything is possible and that they can actually achieve these really phenomenal gains in a short period of time, is part of why we’re so successful. So I think sometimes that word, social ideal sticker or what have you, can have this negative connotation, but it’s also really a part of why people are able to work so hard and come to the table to produce such incredible results.

Amy: Yeah, it has to be so motivating.

Aaliyah: Yeah, exactly. And then to bring it around, like I was saying earlier, thinking about it being a movement. Like to be around 4000 other people doing the exact same thing I really think that that is a huge part of the success of our individual teachers is the fact that they know that they’re not working towards that mission alone. That there are 4000, 5000 other people doing the exact same thing.

Amy: Do TfA Corps members teach K-12 like all grade levels?

Aaliyah: Yeah, depending on the region. But as an organization, yes. So we actually teach pre-K.

Amy: Oh, that’s great.

Aaliyah: Yeah. Pre-K to 12. And some places might have more secondary teachers than elementary or more elementary than secondary. But, yeah.

Amy: So, I guess I want to ask you a little bit more about your own career path and you went into TfA right after college? Is that right?

Aaliyah: Yes.

Amy: Where did you go to school? What did you study and why did you decide on TfA?

Aaliyah: Yeah, so I went to Davidson College which is like a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. Right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. I majored in sociology which is an emphasis on writing. I really honestly did not have any intention to teach necessarily.

I was in my senior year really wanting to do something that was meaningful. I had so many different opportunities and I really just didn’t feel like any  of those things was a good use of anything. Like my brain, my talents, my skills. And in 2000 even thought Teach for America had been around for ten years, I think it was far less known than the way that it is now.

And I had had the opportunity to work at an after school program across the tracks from my school. My college was a very like middle class to upper class college. But then you walked across the street and you literally crossed train tracks so it’s sort of like a stereotypical experience. So it’s sort of surreal. You cross these train tracks and then all of a sudden you’re in a neighborhood that looks very different with people with different socioeconomic status who are facing incredibly different challenges.

And I think just having the experience of crossing over those tracks everyday to work this after school program and meeting the kids that were there and really seeing their potential. And knowing that they just did not have the resources and just like the time spent and just what they needed in order to be successful. And that literally like five steps away, I had everything. I don’t know, so it just sort of compelled me to look for options.

And then Teach for America came up as an option for me and then I just immediately knew that is really what I needed to spend my skills and my talent on. And I, so I did the two years…

Amy: You joined the Corps and then you were in Atlanta for two years?

Aaliyah: Yes, exactly. I joined the Corps and was kind of young. I was 20 years old. Joined the Corps in Atlanta, taught 4th and 5th grade, So I mean, I was only like, 20 of my kids were ten. So it was just, it was just such an incredible experience. In terms of the challenge and in terms of the results I was able to see at the end of my first year of teaching. And the kinds of people that my kids were when they left me. I actually, I was telling a group of people today, my very first class graduated from high school this year.

Amy: What grade were they in when you taught them?

Aaliyah: Fourth.

Amy: That’s a tough year.

Aaliyah: Yeah, fourth, fourth grade. So I knew these kids when they were ten years old and I got so many different letters. I read to a group today, an email I got from a mother from a child I taught when he was ten. And then basically her email said, “you know, I’ve been trying to reach you for a really long time, Marquis is graduating, you know this year, and I really just wanted to reach out to you and say thank you for instilling in him the importance of education. And I really just think that we owe this graduation to you.”

And I mean, it’s just been, I mean at the time that experience was so challenging I knew that I was making a difference and I knew that I was contributing in the most powerful way that I possibly could as a human. But to get that then eight years later and really realize the long-lasting effect of this work just is consistently inspiring to me.

Amy: That’s really beautiful.

Aaliyah: Yeah.

Amy: How big was your classroom?

Aaliyah: I taught, so I had 26 kids my very first year. In a classroom in a school with no windows and no doors. And whenever I tell people that I think it’s so interesting. And I think that’s the reason we have the competency in what we’re looking for in terms of like being able to overcome challenges. Because you know, it’s definitely a challenge to have 20-something kids in a room with no window and no door to the classroom. But being able to overcome those and figure out ways around everything and like really keep my students learning at the forefront was definitely a challenge. But, obviously it paid off which is great.

Amy: Teach for America offers extremely high-quality career services to its corps members and to its alums, and you’ve also established a huge array of grad school partnerships, that offer a variety of different benefits to TfA Corps members who are thinking about grad school. I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about both of those.

Aaliyah: Well, the idea behind both the grad school partnerships and the career service support that we do provide for people, is to insure that we have alumna–a group of alumni still working toward our mission and our goals in any sector that they choose. And knowing that is so important, no matter what. If you want to go to law school and you want to be a lawyer, the fact that you had that two year teaching experience mean you understand what’s possible for kids all across the country. That kind of also impacts you know, when you have conversations at lunch and who you talk to, and maybe who you lobby for and who you vote for.

I mean, all the—it’s so critical that people with the teaching experience are everywhere across the country in addition to being in positions like school leadership and running for different political offices. So, that’s really the reason behind our support.

So particularly, we offer career services support. We have a career services part of our organization that offers like webinars and offers resume coaching, and offers like specific interview coaching for different careers. But the graduate school partnerships is something similar. So, people who are interested in going to graduate school, but then also really want to commit to being a part of the movement having the opportunity to go do that. To go teach for two years but then be able to go back to grad school with having that automatic deferral. In addition to also maybe having like a fee waiver. You know, given the fact that they’re on a teaching salary

Amy: And then the other thing, Teach for America is part of AmeriCorps. So, Teach for America Corps members earn the starting salary in whatever district they’re in right?

Aaliyah: Absolutely.

Amy: But then they also can defer student loans. And they’re also eligible for the AmeriCorps Education Award at the end?

Aaliyah: Yes, that’s correct. Yes, so they make the same–I’m glad that you asked that cause sometimes that’s really confusing to people. But they make the exact same amount. So as a teacher in Atlanta, you know I made my $31,000 like a first year teacher in Atlanta would make. And then I had the opportunity to receive the AmeriCorps stipend at the end of each of my years.

Amy: Ok and then that’s great cause that also opens the door for other kind of grad school fellowships and…

Aaliyah: Oh, definitely. I definitely used that. Yeah.

Amy: So my final question is, how can people learn more and get involved both for people who are potential applicants for next year, or just anyone who in their own communities who want to work toward overcoming educational inequity?

Aaliyah: The first, I mean the really easy one in terms of just thinking about potentially joining the movement is to search the website and to be able to read the information that’s there. www.teachforamerica.org. And I think it’s just full of a lot of information about like why we do what we do, how we recruit, where we go and what it really looks like on the day-to-day basis. And you know, including videos and people talking about their experience so I’d definitely encourage people who are interested in thinking about applying to do that.

I would also encourage people who are thinking about applying to like, reach out to someone who they might know who has, you know, who has gone through this two year commitment and who’s an alum. I think that’s an incredible way to just hear more about the actual kids behind the mission.

In terms of the Corps part of it, if it’s not for you at this particular point in your life, but you really are committed to insuring that every student has the same opportunity to learn at a high level, I would say a couple of things. I mean, being aware of the issues that are in your particular community and the potential differentiation, differences, in educational outcomes and educational equity like within your own community. So, making a point to kind of read about these issues and like, know what’s going on and as appropriate lobbying for different resources. Or lobbying for different–there’s you know, lobbying for things that are going to be in the best interest for kids, all kids, and learning more about what’s going on. And being able to share that with someone else.

And I would also say, like if joining the Corps is not necessarily right for people, sharing what they have heard about Teach for America with other people who it might be right for. So, just having that conversation with their neighbors, or with their neighbor’s daughters or whom ever who might be able to make that choice and commit to the two years in the classroom.

And then there’s always the obvious of like, providing their actual either financial resrouces either to Teach for America, you know, Teach for America itself which is a full nonprofit and runs 100 percent on the donation and the goodwill of other people. Or you know, to a particular school in their neighborhood that may really benefit from those resoruces or from actual volunteerism and time.

Amy: I kinda want to know if you’re ever going to close that gap. But um, that’s kind of…

Aaliyah: If I’m going to close what?

Amy: The gap. The educational gap.

Aaliyah: Of course! There’d be no reason to work if we didn’t believe we were going to close it.

Amy: Do you have a deadline for that?

Aaliyah:I don’t know if we have a deadline, like by 2020, the achievement gap will be closed. But I think that we do 100 percent believe like it has to be closed. And we’ll keep working until it is. I don’t know when it will happen, Amy, but it will.

Amy: Well, good for you! Aaliyah, that’s wonderful. I’m just so glad to hear all about what you guys are doing, and to give people a chance to learn a little bit more.

Aaliyah: Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed the conversation.

Amy: Excellent.

Learn more about Teach For America at teachforamerica.org. The New Service blog from Idealist also features other opportunities to serve including through teaching corps such as TFA. Idealist.org/thenewservice.

Special thanks to TFA’s Sonal Gertan and Lorraine Anderson. Thanks also to Idealist’s Nadia Saah. This show was produced with the help of Sara Lozito and Douglas Coulter. I’m Amy Potthast. Thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to Idealist.org.

If you have enjoyed our podcasts, please show your support by going to iTunes, and leaving a review, and rating of this episode, or others you’ve liked. You can also send us feedback to: podcasts [at] idealist.org.

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