“What Role Will I Play?” Reflections from Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Summit

Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington DC – a stunning tour de force that drew 11,000 leading players in the movement to radically improve US education.

In the closing session, an impressive line-up of impassioned alumni—school principals, state senators, corporate lawyers and superintendents among them—offered testimonials of how their years in the classroom fostered a lifelong commitment to ensuring educational equity. Their reflections were framed as answers to a simple question: What role will I play? And as they shared stories of their continued efforts to put kids first, those of us in the audience couldn’t help but ask ourselves what role we will play in leveling the playing field of opportunity.

Whatever critiques have arisen about Teach for America, there is one thing on which we can all agree: the model has unleashed an unparalleled force to improve education in our country. After two years of giving so much of yourself to a classroom full of kids, it’s virtually impossible not to emerge with the conviction that though many are still denied access to an excellent education, all children have the potential to learn and thrive—and we all have a role to play in uncovering that potential. As one alumna put it: “After our experience in the classroom, none of us will ever feel comfortable simply sitting on the sidelines.”

I was not a TFA teacher. In fact, when I was in college in the late 1990’s, I remember vividly the pressure to not pursue my interest in teaching ; I will never forget the friend who told me that a decision to teach after college would be a waste of my academic training and potential. At the time, TFA was little known, still years away from becoming the mark of achievement and honor it has become today.

Imagine. If 20 years ago someone had suggested that one day teaching in our country’s toughest schools would be the most sought-after job among high achieving college graduates, it would have sounded absurd, impossible… But that’s exactly what’s happened. TFA has created nothing less than a seismic shift in our concept of what it will take to improve our nations’ schools. No longer can we sit passively and wait for elected officials or the Department of Education to mandate reform from on high; instead, we all have a role to play.

At Global Citizen Year, our vision is no less bold: we are planting the idea in American culture that a “bridge year” after high school will prepare young people for success in college and 21st century careers. And while it may still seem lofty to believe that someday a “Global Citizen Year” will be the norm rather than the exception, the Teach for America story reminds us that it’s possible.

As the summit drew to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder what Global Citizen Year’s 20th anniversary celebration will hold. What stories will our legions of Alumni tell from their roles as leading educators, politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs? What change will they have catalyzed to improve peoples’ lives in communities at home and around the world?

The path from here to 20 years is anything but defined, but there is no doubt that we too will build an undeniable force – a force of new leaders who are prepared for leadership in our global world. Working to build that force, inspiring others to join our effort, and ensuring that the most ambitious expression of this shared vision is realized – that is the role I will play.