A Calling Beyond the Classroom

Thanks to the growing popularity of a non-profit organization called Teach For America, Young Life is finding more possibilities to start and sustain ministries in rural and urban communities.

Teach For America hires college graduates of all academic majors and young professionals to make a two-year commitment to teach in rural and urban public schools. The organization, which has a selective hiring rate of 15 percent, trains these top-notch grads to be competent teachers in tough classrooms with limited resources.

Not only are the Teach For America "corps members," as they are called, becoming gifted teachers, but many are also becoming great Young Life leaders. With a new partnership between Young Life and Teach For America under way, talented teachers who are passionate followers of Christ are getting introduced to, and hooked on, Young Life.

For years, Young Life has witnessed the powerful role that teachers play in the mission, helping Young Life reach kids at a school "working from the inside out," said Lee Finch, Young Life's Teachers in the Mission representative.

"But one of the amazing things about this new and developing relationship between Young Life and Teach For America is not just who it's drawing to the mission — high-caliber believers who want to make a difference in kids' lives — but also where it's bringing Young Life," said Josh Griffin, Young Life's assistant director for Field Initiatives. "Teach For America is placing teachers in under-resourced urban and rural schools, making them an incredible answer to prayer for staff in those same communities."

That was true for Kyle Cummins, a Young Life staff person in south central Los Angeles tasked with starting a club at the 5,000-student Fremont High School. He approached a Teach For America English teacher named Morgan Altizer and asked her to consider becoming a Young Life leader. He knew that, as a teacher, she was primed for Young Life leadership.

Doing Young Life may have come pretty naturally for Altizer but, more importantly, it gave her a way to exercise her spiritual call to teaching.

A natural overlap

Surveys conducted by Teach For America several years ago reveal that Altizer is part of a substantial number of Teach For America members who point to a spiritual motivation for teaching in disadvantaged schools. Among the 50 percent of teachers identifying themselves as "people of faith," 80 percent of them indicated their faith was their main motivation for doing Teach For America — because they felt that as part of their faith, they were called to make things like education equitable for all, said Nicole Baker, vice president of Faith Community Relations for Teach For America.

"We noticed a natural overlap in the goals of Teach For America and the values of people of faith who were participating in the organization," Baker said. "In addition, among applicants who were people of faith, Young Life was, and remains, one of the top 10 organizations that these applicants were involved in as college students."

So two years ago, Teach For America started building partnerships with faith-based organizations like Young Life. The relationship has definitely been mutually beneficial, Baker said, because it's helping Teach For America identify high-quality applicants. Those with Young Life experience have already gained a reputation for having strong leadership qualities, as well as the ability to connect with and motivate young people, she said.

In turn, Teach For America identifies teachers who are people of faith and attempts to connect them with Young Life opportunities, through surveys, a website advertising volunteer opportunities, and meetings for Teach For America teachers with area and regional Young Life staff. That's where Finch is starting to step in. He helps all kinds of teachers, whether they are with Teach For America or not, find Young Life leadership teams to join or begin clubs of their own.

The reason I teach

Although the life of a Teach For America teacher is very busy — teaching demanding class loads in under-resourced schools by day, and then attending credentialing classes at night — Young Life has greatly enriched the overall teaching experience, said Altizer. Her two-year commitment to Teach For America ended in June but she is hoping that her next teaching job — at a ninth-grade continuation school in South Dakota — will bring another chance to be a teacher and a Young Life leader.

She's motivated to continue her spiritual calling to the classroom because of students like Julia*, a girl whose tumultuous, abusive past threatened her belief in a better life for herself. After a trip to a Young Life winter weekend at Oakbridge, Young Life's camp in Southern California, Julia began to blossom both academically and spiritually. "Julia has become such a leader for our club. She's there every week and really growing. She's also participating in an academic program that, after completing it successfully, could grant her free tuition to one of California's top public universities."

Working with these students can mean "small victories and large defeats" as students confront pressures from family and friends, as well as the temptations of drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, teachers must deal with very limited classroom resources. But the possibility that students like Julia can unearth academic potential and discover their worth in the eyes of their Creator keeps Altizer going.

That lure of possibility is just as strong for Teach For America corps member and Young Life leader Mindy Cheren, who teaches students dealing with an array of learning disabilities at a public charter school in Los Angeles. Like Altizer, Cheren had no prior Young Life experience but the opportunity to "give these kids what I know they ultimately need" was a challenge she couldn't resist. "It's brought teaching to life in a way I never imagined," Cheren said.

That's obvious as she talks about a student named Teresa*. Within the past two years Cheren has witnessed Teresa's successes in the classroom, but also her resistance to God. Consequently, this often means giving Cheren the cold shoulder. "All her friends are going to camp this year, but she's not. She's the one I really want to go. Every time she tries to ignore me it's like God is telling me, 'She just wants to know if you'll still love her.' She's the reason I teach."

And as this partnership between Teach For America and Young Life develops, more teachers will discover their "reasons" for teaching, transforming more of America's toughest, under-served classrooms into places where possibility and hope reign.

*Name has been changed.

For more information on Young Life's Teachers in Mission initiative, contact Josh Griffin.
To find out more about Teach For America, contact Daniel Grant