Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: And for this edition of Better Than Most, we’ll be visiting the New York offices of Teach For America. They’re committed to catalyzing leadership to realize the day when all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Let’s hear from some of the members of this passionate and dedicated team.

John:  One of our core values was relentless pursuit — if you guys remember that one — and a sense of possibility. And using those core values at that time, I was able to go back to school and lost 100 pounds. But it was also what everybody else was doing at work. Seeing people working and being so committed to our mission on a general basis that I started to apply what I was seeing from everybody in the organization. The communal sense of “let’s get this done, let’s get it on time, our kids need us” — I started to see myself as being one of those kids and I started to just model what was being done by our staff here into my personal life to create my own personal achievements. So to me, that’s one of the things that really stood out, just that communal “Let’s get this done. Our kids need us” and I think that we just drive from that.

Minerva: I didn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of being ill because I’ve had incredible benefits team that just helped me every step of the way, made sure I was okay, and really saw me as a person, not just another employee that they have to help. And also this amazing benefits where they’ll give you your full pay for up to eight weeks so I could just focus in getting better. I didn’t have to worry about paying my rent or paying my bills because the organization makes policies based on their people. So, that for me is one of the things that really stood out.

Tahina: We have a level of trust and knowing that we’re doing this, we’re having the hard conversations not because we want to make each other’s lives miserable but because we have to say the hard things here so that we can go out and be a united front. And so I just feel like I’m in an environment where I’m not dinged for being direct. I’m not dinged for saying what’s on my mind. I’m not dinged for just naming the thing that nobody wants to say usually in other spaces. And I know that at the end of the day, it’s always made me better. It’s made me more confident. It’s propelled my own leadership and it’s really helped us at Teach for America, I think, accomplish all that we have.

Jacquie: I guess what I want to focus in on is that moving through–last year, I joined the core values committee. And that for me was an opportunity for our organization–we looked at our core values and decided to revamp them. And I couldn’t quite imagine that I would be chosen to be a part of a committee like that to get that work done because there are people from all over our community that came together to do that work with Elisa, our CEO, VPs and managers, people at all levels. And little old [unintelligible] Jackie that also got to be a part of that. And honestly, that experience changed my life because I saw how important my experience was as just who I am but that was also just as important as Elisa’s opinion about the core values and that we’re all able to have these debates and wrestle for hours and hours and hours about a single word that went into the core values. It was a crazy experience and I think for me, it was like just a reminder that at Teach for America, all of us matter.

Joseph: I was not expecting my team to be so insistent about me just going to be with my family and taking over my entire responsibility and delivering the results at a really high level themselves. So I think that balance of caring about people but also doing the work really well because we care about the mission is something that really just excites me about working at Teach for America.

John: Another thing that I wanted to mention is management. When I came in, I told my boss–he asked me a whole bunch of questions that were not related to my job. And he found out that I love words and I love to write. So, he had me write a poem for him for our check-in that I gave to him every single week. And a lot of times, I would not do the poem and he’ll be like, “You gotta spit one out right now” and I will have to improvise a poem for him. And that really just provided me with the essence to want to learn more and to educate myself, and not only about creative writing program. My boss also has taken all of my interest and figure out a way for me for them to become my job.

Minerva: …how it shaped the way I view the world and how I view people around me. And because of that, I feel like not only I’m a better person. I’m better at my job because I don’t just accept things as they are now. I question it, and it’s given me the confidence to question out loud. And because I’ve discovered over at eight years here that not only will Teach For America leaders be okay with me asking it but encourage me to ask it even if it’s reflecting something that may not be so pretty.

Jacquie: And that’s something that I love about Teach for America. It is the learning, the fact that we are all constantly striving to learn how to do better, whether that’s the system inside of Teach for America or just for ourselves personally.

Ilana: My goal is to stay with Teach for America for as long as I potentially can. I really do want to become a Chief of Staff and so my manager heard that. We created a really personalized and customized development plan to really take on a lot of those responsibilities and to really grow me in a lot of those areas, and I was also given an opportunity to attend the people culture and diversity conference which is going to happen in Denver, and I know a lot of other Chiefs of Staff will be there.

Joe: We know that in order to have a diverse pool of applicants, to make the right hiring decisions, it actually requires a much more expansive process. And so our team over the past three, four years, has completely overhauled the way that we approach hiring. As a hiring manager myself, I now feel equipped from the leadership of our team to make smart decisions and have a really strong and diverse pool of candidates that reflects the background of our students, reflect our city. And a few specific evolutions that I’ve been excited about on this front, we’ve moved from having a solo hiring manager to having hiring teams who make those decisions together collaboratively. We’ve also introduced competency-based numeric rubrics to make sure that we’re making fair decisions on hiring. We moved to more expansive reference checks. Every manager in our region has undergone several rounds of culturally competent hiring manager training. I just think that hiring is one area where I have seen TFA make a commitment to improving and changing over time in a positive way.

Tahina: So, we have a good coaching culture, and in some regions and teams even go a little bit deeper into different types of coaching. So, one of my coach in particular, she works with me really as like I’m her client, and she’s my coach. And that’s our relationship where she’s not managing me. She’s not telling me I need to see this deliverable. She’s really looking to see what it is that I need. I also coach people, so I manage people but I also coach people, and when I coach people I say, “I’m coaching you at the place where you need to be. I actually stand in your greatness. So whatever it is that you need is what I’m going to develop and which you can identify.”

Levi:  When I think about Teach for America, there’s something pretty magical about it. Although we’re in different regions, we all care about the same thing. We’re all working towards the same end, and we’re not in one building. And for me, there’s something magical about that. When I think about our work as staff members who do very specific things for our job, it actually doesn’t feel like where it’s just staff doing them. We have over 50,000 alumni who completed our program. They feel as much a part of the team as any staff member.

Ilana: I’ll go back to the point about staff recognition and I think TFA does a really beautiful job of figuring out people’s learning and working styles and figuring out how in that people like to be recognized. A lot of folks enjoy more public recognition, while some other individuals like more private recognition.

When your year of service comes up, it is a very big deal. It talks about your commitment to the organization and also shows that your organization really values you and shouts you out personally. And this past Wednesday was her year of service, and so I asked each staff member to contribute one to three sentences as to what impact she’s had on the team and what impact she has had in our entire region. And people just contributed the most beautiful, thoughtful things. I came in with flowers for her and all her favorite snacks, and I think that’s just another way that we really affirmed and show people that we appreciate them in a lot of different ways.

Denver: I want to thank Jackie McCarthy, Deepa Purohit, and Lindsay Ferguson for organizing my visit, and to those who took part in this segment: John Valdez, Minerva Inigo, Tahina Perez, Jacquie Younker, Ilana Valinsky, Joseph Malone, and Levi Mogg. To hear this again, read the transcript, or see pictures of the participants and the Teach For America offices, they’re all there waiting for you at denver-frederick.com.


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