We had the good fortune of connecting with Tiffany Cuellar Needham and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Tiffany, what are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by teachers – more now than ever before. Teaching has never been an easy profession, but the pandemic has placed even more stress and work on educators. They have had to pivot and adjust course for three consecutive school years, embrace new technology, keep themselves and their students safe, offer additional assistance to students who may have fallen behind because of the pandemic, and make adjustments due to the nationwide teacher shortage. If you ask them why they stay in the profession, they’ll all point to their students – teachers are laying the foundation for a better future for all of us.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I was a finance major in college and wanted to be an investment banker until I heard about Teach For America, which is a two-year program that places teachers in under-resourced schools. At the information session, I saw so much of my own experience reflected, and I was sold. I thought I would teach for a few years and then maybe go get my MBA or a law degree – I didn’t intend to stay in education. I was a classroom teacher for three years, and I loved my students and the work we did so much, but over time I could see the systemic issues with our education system, and I wanted to do more to try to solve them. I saw how my students were provided with fewer opportunities than other students in Houston, and I realized that their potential was being limited because of it. I wanted to do something on a bigger scale, which led me to working at Teach For America. I haven’t looked back since!
During my time at TFA, I’ve recruited new teachers, led and managed their training, worked with teachers in our program, and then became the executive director of the Houston region in 2016. In my early years at this organization, we weren’t nearly as diverse as we are today. I was frequently the only Latino, and more often one of the only Latinas, in any room, especially as far as our leadership was concerned. It was hard to find my place and feel like I belonged as a leader, but as I grew professionally and the organization grew more diverse, I began to trust in my own leadership and build my confidence.
I want the world to know that, yes, Teach For America recruits and trains incredible teachers, but we also do so much more than that. After two years in the classroom, our teachers join our alumni community, which is over 60,000 people nationwide. There’s a shared understanding and experience among our alumni – a feeling of knowing that this other person also cares about kids, their experiences, and their access to a quality education. It’s also knowing that this person is tough-as-nails because teaching is never easy, so you automatically have a shared emotional and professional experience with someone else. Over two-thirds of our teachers stay working in education in some fashion, whether that is in the classroom, as a school leader, working at a non-profit that serves students, and hundreds of other ways. It’s a two-year commitment to teach, but it really is a lifelong commitment to our mission of ending educational inequity.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I would suggest that they visit in late February- early March to experience some of Houston’s best weather. We would spend at least a day at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for the carnival, animals, shopping with small vendors, checking out student artwork, and then the rodeo and concert. We’d have to spend another day in the East End checking out the murals, especially the Latina female icon mural at Navarro Middle School, fajitas at Ninfa’s, and supporting other local businesses in the area. I’d also want to make sure my friend spent some time at the Galleria and took in the tastes and sights of that – there is so much to see and do inside. We would also have to spend some time in the museum district; my personal favorites are MFAH, the Menil Collection, and of course, the Houston Zoo.
Over the weekend, we’d spend time in Pearland near my house, most likely at my son’s baseball tournament, my daughter’s swim meet, or relaxing at home by the pool.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My mom prioritized her children’s education before anything else. While my family could have moved into a home that my paternal grandparents were willing to pay for, she and my dad chose to buy a smaller house on their own zoned to the best school in our town so that we had the best education available. When I was frustrated during my first semester in college and ready to move back home, she was the one who told me to get to a tutoring center because I wasn’t welcome back without my college degree. My life would be completely different were it not for the importance my parents, and especially my mom, placed on getting an education.