Through TFA I Became More Than a Teacher, I Became a Leader

As the daughter of two educators, it was instilled in me at an early age that education was necessary to achieve success. I assumed everyone had the same academic opportunities and that all schools offered challenging courses similar to the ones I took. Unfortunately, I experienced a rude awakening as I walked the halls of Paul Robeson High School in Chicago. As a tutor with the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which prepares disadvantaged students for college, I quickly learned that college for some students was just a figment of their imaginations. Many of the students I worked with did not master basic skills let alone know how to apply to college. Students didn’t know how to think critically, complete homework assignments or projects that involved a computer, fill out college applications (white-out everywhere instead of starting a new application), or structure essays with few to none grammatical or spelling errors. All of my students lived in Englewood, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. A number supported their families by working after school, some were involved with local gangs, several girls were pregnant or raising a child, or others tried to do well but didn't have any resources at home, such as a computer or regular Internet access.

I Needed to Do More

Being a tutor wasn’t enough; I wanted to do more. So I applied to Teach For America (TFA) while working at Robeson and researched alternative teaching programs in order to obtain a teaching license. I was on track to graduate with a master's degree in voice performance from the Chicago College of Performing Arts, and wanted to use the skills and degrees I already had. Through TFA, I became an early-child education teacher. I learned a lot; I discovered that just like my students, there was a whole world of knowledge waiting for me to tap into. I discovered education policy and found that many of the laws that are created are not designed by people who spent time in the classroom. I became an advocate for early childhood education and educators. I spent some time in Springfield learning how I could contribute to changing policies for early-childhood education. More important, I became an integral part of my school's community and began partnering with local businesses to provide services for my students (boys getting haircuts, new books donated to my school, and connections for afterschool programs). Through TFA, I became more than a teacher—I became a leader.

Making an Impact

As a corps member I sought to make an impact by developing leaders for life. I didn’t want my success to be limited to just increasing graduation rates, but the transformation of students into successful role models and community leaders. Still, I wanted another perspective beyond teaching, so I decided to join TFA as a manager of recruitment. I saw a need for greater diversity of its corps members, to hire more teachers who looked like the students they served. During my time on the recruitment team, I worked with several campus organizations as well as national organizations to recruit top talent for the corps. I made it a priority to work with several minority organizations like the Posse Foundation, chapters of VIVA, black student unions, Asian student organizations and the American Indian Heritage Foundation. I made true connections with the many organizations in communities where I recruited. As much as I loved TFA, I went to work for LEARN Charter School Network because I wanted to see the fruits of my labor.

Creating Diversity in the Classroom

Although I continued building my relationships with the corps members I recruited, I wasn't always able to see them in action in the classroom. I felt that my transition to LEARN would allow me the opportunity to continue recruiting teachers and top talent for the network, while being able to step into their classrooms and see the phenomenal work they would do with our scholars. I also felt it was a great opportunity to join a developing network that has growth potential. LEARN is a diverse environment when it comes to our staff. I can't say that we are more or less diverse than traditional schools, but I will say we make a conscious effort to be diverse in our recruitment efforts. We have recently developed new recruitment strategies that will increase our numbers and continue to move us in a positive recruitment direction. It is our goal to recognize diversity as more than just race and ethnicity, but also encompassing age, gender and socioeconomic status. Throughout my career, I have wanted to raise consciousness and awareness while building authentic relationships. Be it through traditional schools or charter schools, my goal remains the same: I want to evoke conviction and spur individuals to action on our journey toward educational equality.
Qiana McNary is a talent recruitment manager at LEARN Charter School Network. Previously she taught and served as manager of recruitment for Teach For America in Chicago.
Photo courtesy of LEARN Charter Network.
Qiana McNary is a talent recruitment manager at LEARN Charter School Network. Previously she taught for Teach For America in Chicago and served as manager of recruitment.

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