90 Day TFA Lessons Learned

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Yana Smith, our Vice President of Regional Management, shares her reflections on her first 90 days with Teach For America.

I joined Teach For America  – Charlotte on July 1, 2013. In my 90 days on the job I have hit a learning curve that feels mildly overwhelming. Perhaps that’s a bit of an oxymoron, but I came from a fairly large school district (Denver Public Schools, Colorado) where I was one of 10 Assistant Superintendents/Executive Cabinet members with a large team and vast set of responsibilities. I was a mover, a shaker, and a decision-maker! My personal values were aligned with the work I was leading. I had a great relationship with my Superintendent and peers. I was convinced there were few leadership roles that could ever challenge me mentally, physically and emotionally. Then I joined Teach For America.

Mentally: I’ve never had my rationale, decision-making, authority or intuition doubted or questioned like this! I’ve always  been one of the smartest people in the room—a wise visionary, decision-maker and influencer. I now understand that the importance of establishing trust and credibility are essential to my own productivity in this role. Very quickly I realized, TFA Lesson #1: This work is way more important than the fragility of one’s ego. The urgency associated with the work we lead does not allow you to run down your resume of accomplishments, talk about how great of an education you possess… The reality is, the students we’re advocating for could care less about where we  went to school and how smart your colleagues think you are. They’re looking for their shot at success—you’ve already had yours!

Physically: Most of us have heard the saying, “Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” This may be true, but I wonder if the work we’re leading is not a sprint or a marathon, but rather a relay! TFA Lesson #2: Each of us has something unique to contribute to this work. It is our collective power that makes us strong, not our individual effort that will get us over the metaphoric finish line. Our students need the sum of all of us, not the sum of some of us!

Emotionally: I’ve seen communities in great need and I’ve seen perpetually failing schools, but for some reason the needs of our students stand out to me in a way I can’t quite comprehend. I often wonder if it’s because I’ve seen extreme privilege and I’ve seen extreme loss of hope… but I’ve never seen someone or something on the verge of something great, with a spirit of “good enough.” TFA Lesson #3: Why settle for good when you can be great? I often say, “The only difference between try and triumph… is a little bit of “umph!” That “umph” is the game changer in all of this work. It’s that extra something special that separates the good from the great!

Yana Smith

Vice President, Regional Management

Teach For America – Charlotte

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