Heather Tow-Yick is executive director of Teach for America Rhode Island, the state branch of the national organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals of backgrounds to teach for two year contracts in urban and rural public schools.
Tow-Yick originally joined Teach for America in 1998 as a New York Corps teacher. Rhode Island got a Teach for America in 2010 that is working to close the 22 percent gap in high school graduation rates between students in the state’s low-income and high-income communities.
PBN: Teach For America established a Rhode Island presence in 2010 and since has grown from 30 to 50 teachers. Can you attribute any of this increase to young professionals entering into this kind of paid service work as a first step in their career due to a depleted job market?
TOW-YICK: While college graduates have always been drawn to Teach For America in both strong and weak economies, our growth always depends on the hiring needs of our school and district partners. We became a member of the Rhode Island community as one partner in our districts’ efforts to expand the pool of high-quality teacher candidates for open positions in our most challenged schools and to build long-term leadership capacity throughout the education system and across sectors to address the challenges of poverty.
PBN: What other impacts has TFA made in Rhode Island over the last three years?
TOW-YICK: As we grow, our impact grows and we’re excited to see the signs that our collaborative partnerships are on the right track. The number of TF alumni – those who have completed their two-year continuum of training and support – in Rhode Island has grown from 40 when we launched to 100 now living in the state. As young professionals putting down roots, they are helping the state’s economy and plugging into the thriving social and cultural activities in our cities and towns. More importantly, TFA is creating a pipeline of educational leaders that continue to work to increase opportunities for kids in the Ocean State. Many of our alumni continue to make a difference whether as teachers or educational leaders at the R.I. Department of Education, the city of Providence, or in a spectrum of nonprofit organizations.
PBN: How do TFA teachers assist in motivating students to stay in school?
TOW-YICK: Ensuring that all of our students are college and career ready requires leadership and partnership. Our teachers are trained in Teaching As Leadership (TAL), Teach For America’s framework to develop strong leadership in the classroom by preparing teachers to set a compelling and relevant vision with quantifiable goals for student learning. The goals take into account student’s interests and aspirations, the long-term traits and mindsets needed to be college and career ready, and the pathways to opportunities and academic achievement. In practice our teachers focus on making their content relevant for students by helping them make real world connections to what they’re learning.
PBN: Have you found the R.I. Department of Education and other policymakers receptive to ideas Teach for America staff have presented?
TOW-YICK: We’ve been humbled by the support from legislative leaders and RIDE for Teach For America, our work in the classroom, and the continued efforts of our alumni. In fact, six Teach For America alumni are currently serving either as policymakers or RIDE team members. Our work is, and must be, very collaborative with traditionally certified teachers, school systems, and government agencies to be successful. RIDE recently asked for our teachers’ input on the new educator evaluation systems being implemented in Rhode Island. Other partnerships we have developed include a collaboration with Rhode Island College to certify our teachers through an alternate route.
PBN: Do many of the Teacher For America corps members stay on to become Rhode Island teachers on their own accord?
TOW-YICK: Nationally, about two-thirds of TFA corps members continue to work in education, which includes teaching in the classroom. In Rhode Island, we’re encouraged that 83 percent of our teachers that started in 2010 in traditional and charter public schools continue working in the classroom, many actively participate in their teacher unions, have taken on leadership roles in their schools, and support communication and educational organizations after their initial two-year commitments. We anticipate that these retention rates – as they do across professions – will fluctuate from year to year, given that many young professionals today are mobile and constantly seeking opportunities to focus and develop their strengths and passions. As Rhode Island’s education landscape and economy continue to draw newcomers to stay and draw natives like me back home, our impact in the classroom and beyond will continue to grow.