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How to Turn a Teach For America Experience into a Career in Education Policy

A smiling teacher in her classroom.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over half of the 1.3 million high school dropouts in the United States are students of color from low-income neighborhoods. There is growing urgency to address this challenge.

Teach For America (TFA) focuses on expanding educational opportunities for children. The program allows educators to make an impact on the lives of students from low-income communities in over 50 regions across the country. TFA recruits college graduates and professionals for difficult-to-fill roles and prepares them to help address educational inequities. Participants work as teachers for a minimum of two years in school systems that need the most help. After completing the program, they typically pursue teaching and other school leadership roles or focus on a career in education policy.

TFA opens career doors for aspiring educators by exposing them to a vast network. While working in low-income schools, participants also develop leadership and creative thinking skills and sharpen their communication, public speaking, and organizational abilities.

Former TFA participants interested in embarking on a rewarding career in education policy can build on their experience by pursuing an advanced degree such as American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program.

Establish a Strong Network of Education Peers

When considering career options, former TFA participants can tap into a network of 55,700 alumni with similar interests. Eighty-five percent of alumni continue serving low-income communities in an educational role. Many others go on to serve as policy makers, school administrators, CEOs, attorneys, and community leaders. Former TFA teachers can take advantage of this network to locate job opportunities and pursue a career in education.

Establish a Specialty to Build a Career in Education

TFA alumni can also use their teaching experiences to make them competitive educational leaders. The low-income schools targeted by TFA often have greater student diversity than higher-income ones, giving these teachers insight into the value of student bodies that reflect the nation’s evolving racial makeup. Exposure to these school environments also builds cultural competence. Cultural competence is a skill that the National Education Association (NEA) considers essential for teachers to be “effective with students from cultures other than their own.”

The Century Foundation highlights research that demonstrates the educational benefits of diversity. The study reports that diversity helps students build cognitive, social, and emotional skills. It also improves their abilities in interacting with classmates with backgrounds, cultures, and orientations different from their own. TFA alumni understand diversity and how building inclusive school communities can help students reach their full potential. The skills obtained from their experiences may make them more attractive for roles in schools looking for specialists who can help incorporate cultural competence into their curricula.

TFA participants can specialize in subjects where teacher shortages are most prevalent, especially in poor inner-city and rural areas. Specialty areas include special education, mathematics, and science.

The Learning Policy Institute points to a National Public Radio report that looks at the shortage of teachers in special education across the country. High-poverty schools struggle the most with filling those roles. “Half of all schools and 90% of high-poverty schools are struggling to find qualified special education,” they report.

NPR also addresses shortages for mathematics and science teachers. A more robust labor market may help account for this shortage as professionals with strong mathematics and science backgrounds are in high demand.

The challenge of teacher shortages in the areas of mathematics, science, and special education may create opportunities for TFA participants. By taking on roles to teach mathematics, science, and special education, TFA participants can acquire essential skills and experience to specialize in these high-demand teacher specialty areas.

Understand the Diverse Issues Facing Education Today

Per-student spending in the highest-poverty districts is about $1,200 less than the national average of $11,000 per student, according to the NEA. In communities with larger minority student populations, spending is about $2,000 less per child than the average. Through their work, TFA alumni are exposed to the economic issues in the school districts they’ve served, gaining firsthand insight into the challenges poorly funded schools face.

Former TFA participants have also experienced the social issues that affect education environments. Education Week cites a report that points to the growing problem of adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which affect 72 percent of students before the age of 18. Instances of ACE include physical, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse; a history of incarceration and mental illness among family members; domestic violence; and the loss of a parent due to death or divorce.

TFA participants can use their experience working in districts where students face these challenges every day to inform a career in education policy.

Pursue Educational Leadership Jobs after Teach For America

Good teachers are creative, approachable, professional, and engaging. They demand the best from their students and take steps to help them succeed academically and socially. Aspiring educators must also sharpen their leadership, creative thinking, communication, public speaking, and organizational skills. To that end, the TFA experience encourages individuals to develop these attributes, as well as an understanding of the education landscape. An advanced degree builds on that preparation to help make them leaders ready to address serious challenges.

TFA participants can advance their careers by enrolling in American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program. The curriculum equips students with knowledge of education policies on the federal and state levels and offers the leadership experience necessary to serve in high-ranking positions in education.

Graduates acquire core leadership competencies, including strategic budgeting, collaborative inquiry, talent management, partnership building, learning science, and program evaluation. Courses include Education Policy and Law, Exercising Conscious Leadership, Social Justice and Anti-Racism, Applied Research Methods, and Building Teams and Growth. Explore how American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program can help prepare you with essential skills to change lives.

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