In my first year as an 11th grade history teacher, I had a student named Aaliyah who sat quietly in the back of the room, rarely raising her hand, seemingly disinterested in class discussion. Every day I would attempt a new way to engage her with no luck. I was shocked when I discovered that she had made it to 11th grade reading at a fifth grade level.

Aaliyah had been done a disservice by a school system that had advanced her through middle and high school without the literacy skills she would need to succeed in college and beyond. I owed it to her to get her back on track so we spent extra time before or after school working on her reading skills. Through hard work, Aaliyah was able to earn her high school diploma on time and become the first member of her family to go to college.

Raised by a single mother in a low-income, African-American community in Milwaukee, I knew the importance of caring, committed teachers first hand. I wouldn’t have become a proud Badger without Ms. Meyer telling me I could achieve any dream I set my mind to or Ms. Ebel telling me I should reach higher and apply for the district’s gifted middle school program. That’s why I decided to join Teach For America (TFA) after graduating from UW-Madison in ’08.

I first heard of TFA during my senior year. As I walked up Bascom Hill, I saw a sign that said, “Nine-year-olds in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.” Then came “Only one in 10 students growing up in poverty will have the opportunity to attend this school. Teach for all 10.” As I crested the hill, I saw the TFA sign: “Free pizza in the Humanities building.” Once there, I met TFA’s recruitment manager and we talked about the impact he had made on the lives of his students who were struggling to achieve academically in the face of the challenges of poverty.

At the time, TFA was not present in Milwaukee so I opted to teach in Atlanta. Three years later, I was able to bring my dedication to giving every student the excellent education they deserve back to Milwaukee. I now serve as the executive director of Teach For America in Milwaukee, guiding more than 100 corps members as they strive to give their more than 7,000 students the kind of education that will transform their lives.

I can think of nothing with a bigger impact a recent college graduate can undertake than shaping the lives of a classroom of students. For too long, a kid’s zip code has defined their destiny. But we know that with an all hands-on-deck approach educational inequity is a solvable problem.
Knowing that we can close the achievement gap for students like Aaliyah, I simply can’t walk away from this work. As you think about the role you will play in the broader world upon graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts.

Maurice Thomas ([email protected]) is the executive director of Teach For America – Milwaukee