Teach for America-Memphis has a new leader for the first time in a decade. What will she do?

For the first time in nine years, Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program will have a new leader in Nafeesha Mitchell.

Mitchell will welcome the next class of Teach for America-Memphis teachers, expected to be about 250 members, when she starts on June 1.

The appointment marks a significant moment for the 13-year-old teacher preparation program, which had a consistent leader for nine years in Athena Palmer. When Palmer took charge of the program in 2010, it was small and criticized for its lack of diversity. Now, the program has almost quadrupled in size and is known for recruiting and retaining educators of color. Palmer recruited Mitchell in the hopes she would continue the work she started, while also creating a stronger alumni program.

The State Board of Education has consistently given Teach for America-Memphis high marks in the state’s evaluation of how well programs prepare teachers for classrooms.  The program has also enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. But teacher unions have been wary of it because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

Mitchell has been with Teach for America since 2009 and was most recently the vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team, where she headed up an alumni program for educators of color.

She said focusing on Memphis’ large group of alumni would be a big focus for her, especially since she played a big role in the national organization’s alumni network previously. She was expected to be in Memphis full time starting in January, but that date was pushed back to June due to family obligations, Mitchell added.

Teach for America has welcomed more than 1,200 teachers over the past 13 years in Memphis, who have a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization. Teach for America-Nashville-Chattanooga, which serves two Memphis cities, reported a similar retention number.

We spoke with Mitchell about her past, her hopes for TFA-Memphis, and what she has been reading to get ready for her new position.

1) What has prepared you for this job? What experiences are you bringing to Memphis?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. My parents relocated us to North Carolina my senior year, and I went on to attend N.C. A&T State University, a historically black university. My family relocated to North Carolina in the belief that my sister and I would have a better education. At the time, North Carolina was leading the tide in outcomes for students. When I was leaving college in 2008, finding a job was really tough. That was also at the height of the Obama presidential campaign, and as a graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communication, I wound up working for Fox News during that campaign. That was a really interesting time for me, and I learned a lot about what inequity looked like from a national standpoint while covering that campaign. The experience really motivated me to find a place where I could actually impact the inequity I saw. In 2009, I applied and was accepted to Teach for America in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Nafeesha Mitchell (Teach for America)

I went on to serve as an assistant principal in rural North Carolina, before being asked to launch the TFA North Carolina Piedmont Triad region. We were based out of Greensboro, and I was the founding executive director. I did that role for 3 1/2 years before coming aboard the National Alumni Team. I led our program for national alumni of color. I was approached by Athena, and she really stewarded me into this Memphis role.

I believe I’m uniquely positioned to do this work as a former executive director and with my background in TFA alumni work. There’s a significant mass of alumni in Memphis, and I want to build structure and focus around how to mobilize those leaders.

2) What are you wanting to do your first few months on the job? What are your long term goals?

I want the first year to be a learning year. I’m working to build relationships and better understand our footprint and broader strategy. The largest school district, Shelby County Schools, has a new superintendent. I’m looking forward to building a relationship with that leader and other local leaders, and learn what their priorities will be for the upcoming year. I won’t be making any significant recommendations during my first months, but learning and spending the full year as a time to learn what makes the most sense for TFA moving forward.

But we already know what we will be focusing on in Memphis in our next phase is leadership. We absolutely must get leadership development right. We have over 700 current TFA corps members and alumni in Memphis. There’s a huge opportunity there. We want to better know what our alumni are working on in their own pockets and silos, and bring coordination so that we’re able to meaningfully spread the things we know or believe our kids will need over the next decade. We have alumni who are now principals and district leaders, as well as leaders outside of the school space who still care and are involved with education. How do they all feel supported and equipped in Memphis’ evolving landscape? How do we support leaders on all different levels? Those are the questions we’re asking.

3) Last year, 42% of recruits were teachers of color, and 42% came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93% of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59% lived in poverty.

How do you think about continuing this work?

The work is immensely important to me. I’m a black woman, leading in education. I’m someone who grew up in majority black communities but attended schools that were either very mixed racially or majority white. And that was no small part of my parents’ effort that I have access to a quality education.

I went to an HBCU because I wanted to see leaders that looked like me in the education space. I wanted to find my rightful place in the world and lead. It’s immensely important that our students have access to a diverse array of leaders because the world is diverse. There’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see, and I really believe that. Our students need to be able to see themselves. And so, in thinking about how to continue this work, we’re going to focus on what strategies have allowed students from diverse backgrounds to step into a Memphis classroom and thrive. First, diversity has to remain a visible priority. Second, we need to continue to identify and help with the barriers that our leaders could face. If you are from a low-income background and choosing to come into the education space where compensation may not be as high as you would have wanted, how do we help there? Can we provide sponsorships and ease moving costs, so we’re not asking anyone to take on additional hardships.

There are also native Memphians who want to serve here, and we want to continue focusing on them. We also have someone on the TFA-Memphis staff who is focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s huge for keeping this a strong focus for us.

4) TFA-Memphis received top marks again this year on the State Board of Education’s evaluation of teacher preparation programs. What measures of success are you looking at?

For me, coming from an education background, I want to ensure that we’re performing on par with what quality teaching and learning looks like for state metrics. So, it was great to see us score well again on the state report card. But we also need to look at leadership and retention. Over 80 percent of TFA-Memphis alums stay in Memphis beyond their two-year stint. About 90 percent of our members finish their two-year commitment. That matters for us. It allows us to build on the work and not have to rely on building new every single year.

We have over 250 alumni teachers, about 20 or so principals, about five district leaders, and over 25 deans or assistant principals. We also have alumni leading in policy and social entrepreneurship. Over 14 percent of our corps members identify as Memphians and were recruited locally. All of that matters. We want to keep the momentum of our work going forward.

5) What have you been reading as you work to get to know Memphis?

Our board has been extremely helpful in getting me caught up to speed in organizational matters and in learning about the city itself. Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools by Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlmann has been great.

I also got a lot from Memphis and the Paradox of Place. I’m still getting caught up on the history of the city, which plays a huge part in what happens today.