Students should consider Teach for America

Dear Illini seniors:

I hope this message finds you well, and I hope you’re braving the walk to class, despite the winter weather. As a University alumnus, I remember well those cold walks across the Quad. A year after graduating, I found myself in a warmer but less expected locale, teaching sixth grade math and science in sunny Los Angeles as a member of the 2002 Teach For America corps.

Thirteen years later, it remains the single greatest decision I ever made.

The choice to move away from family and friends was not easy. Like many University students, I went to high school in the Chicago suburbs, and my family and friends were always close by. I moved to Los Angeles after graduation without close ties to the community, but with a deep belief that education was the most important issue I could take on.

It was in South Los Angeles that I met 63 sixth graders, who became my friends, my family, and my community on the West Coast. Over a decade later, having been a teacher and a principal, I now work for the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools — and am more dedicated than ever to eradicating educational inequity in our lifetime.

Today I am lucky to work on improving education across an entire city. In 2010, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, a Teach For America alumnus, cosponsored Colorado Senate Bill 191. Currently, we are working tirelessly to implement this historic state-wide legislation, which will require teachers and principals to be evaluated, in part, on the academic growth of their students and to raise the bar for teachers to receive and keep tenure.

While our nation’s educational landscape is ripe for change, the most important lever for improving the education we offer our students is our people. At DPS we are committed to identifying, hiring and supporting quality teachers at every level. Our partnership with Teach For America continues to help ensure we get the right leaders on the bus.

Since Teach For America came to Denver in 2007, hundreds of corps members have become teachers with DPS — but the demand for teachers continues to outweigh those joining the profession. This year, we project we will need almost 900 new teachers for our kids, and we rely on TFA to supply us with a crucial fraction of that amount.

I encourage you to apply to TFA where you will find a team of like-minded individuals working relentlessly to provide an excellent education for all of our students, and we invite you to take the first step by applying by March 6.

Teaching is hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Harder than juggling my final exams, or leading a school, or even helping to shape a state’s education policy. But I was privileged to see my students achieve at the highest levels. During my second year in the classroom, against all odds and expectations, 91 percent of my science students performed as well as students from Beverly Hills on our end-of-year assessment. Witnessing my students’ excitement was about more than a test score; it was about proving what is possible for students growing up in poverty.

In the classroom, there will be days when your lessons fall flat, days when you strive for perfection and miss the mark, and days when you lose sleep about the many challenges that your students face. But the best teachers are always striving to become better, knowing that our students deserve nothing less. These are the teachers that parents and students continue to ask for.

All of our students — from Chicago to LA to Denver — deserve a great education. They deserve the kind of educational opportunities that will allow them to become an Illini. I hope you’ll join us in this work.

Sean Precious, University alumnus 2002.